Stop US Delegation in Vienna

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Susan RiceThe US delegation in Vienna continues to block any inclusion of harm reduction in the new Political Declaration – to be approved in March 2009 at the high-level segment of the 52nd session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Three members of the US Congress have written a letter to the new US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, to call for new instructions to be given to the delegation.

According to the authors of the letter – José Serrano, Henry Waxman and Barbara Lee – ‘the US delegation in Vienna has been actively blocking the efforts of some of our closest allies – including the European Union – to incorporate in the declaration reference to harm reduction measures, such as needle exchange’. The authors support introduction into Congress of a bill - HR 179, the Community AIDS and Hepatitis Prevention Act of 2009 - to lift the federal ban on needle exchange.

The issue is particularly serious, as the new Political Declaration will guide international drug policy for the next decade. Many countries look at the UN for guidelines on drug policy. An official recognition of needle exchange and harm reduction in drug control strategies would enhance effective measures against HIV/AIDS and other blood borne diseases, and significantly reduce the number of overdose deaths.

Despite President Obama’s announcement to lift the federal ban on needle exchange, the delegation in Vienna continues to obstruct the inclusion of harm reduction in the declaration.

“We find it hard to understand how the US delegation could object to language which would not obligate any country to adopt particular policies whit which it disagrees”, the Congress members write. They go on to call for new instructions to be given to the delegation “from the highest levels of the new administration” that “ensure that the eventual UN declaration reflects evidence-based policies that protect public health.”

Read the letter

At the end of 2006, nearly one-third of all US AIDS cases – more than 300,000 – were linked to intravenous drug use. To stop this disaster, US Congressman Serrano introduced the Community AIDS and Hepatitis Prevention Act to lift the federal ban on needle exchange. Unlike the US federal government, many local and state governments allow and often finance needle exchange programs. “Helping them would save taxpayers money in the long run,” Serrano wrote in the The Washington Post. “The average lifetime health-care costs for an HIV patient are estimated at $618,900. Clean syringes cost around eight cents each.”

Confronted with critics who “trotted out the tired claim that syringe exchange programs encourage drug use”, Serrano quotes Elias A. Zerhouni, the director of the National Institutes of Health, who wrote to Congress in 2004: "A number of studies conducted in the United States have shown that syringe exchange programs do not increase drug use among participants or surrounding community members and are associated with reductions in the incidence of HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C in the drug-using population." Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, US delegates, legislators and others opposed to syringe exchange continue to ignore the proof that contradicts their claims.