UNGASS 2016: ‘Harm reduction saved my life’

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The following remarks were presented on April 21st in plenary at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in New York.

Namaste! My name is Charanjit Sharma and I am from Manipur a state in the North Eastern part of India. I work for India HIV/AIDS Alliance, and I am also the Secretary of the Indian Drug Users Forum. I am here today because harm reduction saved my life. But I have many friends who were not as fortunate. Their lives were lost simply because they could not access harm reduction services.

We, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance family, are reaching close to 300,000 people who use drugs with community-based HIV and harm reduction services each year in nine countries in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. This gives us a unique perspective on what it takes to prevent HIV and hepatitis C transmission and what it takes to get treatment to people who inject drugs.

I have witnessed firsthand the negative impact of prohibition and the fallout of law enforcement as a mechanism of drug control. I have seen police action on drug users and have myself been subjected to exploitation, violence and detention for simply being suspected of using an illicit drug. As drug users, we are soft and easy targets for law enforcement while big players remain elusive. The drug trade continues despite harmful efforts to control it, and we pay the price.

It’s hard to get HIV treatment to people when they are incarcerated, detained or hiding from services for fear of arrest. How can we end AIDS when we can’t get HIV treatment to the people who need it most?

I know from my personal experience the devastating consequences of forced drug treatment and entirely ineffective rehabilitation programs. I have friends who have been tortured and publicly humiliated for days and weeks in the name of treatment. I know too many people incarcerated for years for possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use. Is this justice? Is this fair? Is this humane? Will this end AIDS?

Widespread criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs confirms that the war on drugs is, in fact, a war on drug users – a war on people – a war on us.

On behalf of people who use drugs in India, in Asia and in every country around the world, I appeal to you to put the health, rights and security of people who use drugs at the centre of international and national drug policy. I appeal to you to ensure that policy is informed by evidence of what works: accessible, holistic, people-centred services, tailored to the needs of people who use drugs. I appeal to you to stop arresting and incarcerating people for consumption and possession of drugs for personal use. The death penalty for drug-related offences must be abolished. I appeal to you to support drug users and organisations working with us to improve access to HIV and hepatitis C treatment and overdose services. Support drug users to participate meaningfully in the design and delivery of harm reduction services.

The former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has recognized the failure of the war on drugs, recently saying, ‘We need to accept that a drug-free world is an illusion. We must focus instead on ensuring that drugs cause the least possible harm.’

 Harm reduction saved my life. Harm reduction saves lives. When lives are saved, communities thrive.  When communities thrive, nations prosper. We can’t end AIDS until we scale up harm reduction and end the criminalisation of drug users. Support. Don’t punish.

Thank you.

 The author of this post, G. Charanjit Sharma, is Technical Advisor: Drug Use & Harm Reduction at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

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