Wikileaks case exposes how draconian criminal law is driving drug-users and people with HIV underground

The much-publicized arrest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has had the unexpected effect of highlighting laws that criminalize health status related to HIV.

Assange is facing rape charges in Sweden for “rape, sexual molestation, and forceful coercion.” These charges were brought after two women allegedly went to Swedish authorities to find Assange and compel him to take an STD test. As the recent article Underreported: The Link Between Julian Assange and Sweden’s Repressive HIV Law by Housing Works points out, if Assange is HIV positive and had not disclosed this fact, under Sweden’s Communicable Disease Act, he could possibly be prosecuted for exposure and face compulsory isolation, fines or jail time of up to 10 years.

It has not been alleged that Assange is HIV positive; however, the charges against him draw attention to Sweden’s counter-productive and repressive HIV criminalization law.

According to the Swedish government the purpose of the law is to “fulfill the population’s need of protection against the spread of communicable diseases.” However, this Act and other laws that punish individuals based on their HIV health status do not serve their intended purpose of protecting the public, but instead provide an incentive to remain ignorant of one’s HIV status, increase stigma, and encourage vulnerable populations like sex workers and drug users to avoid social and health services.

These laws are not unique to Sweden. In the United States thirty-four states and two US territories have HIV-specific criminal statutes that criminalize HIV exposure and transmission, and thirty-six states have reported proceedings in which HIV-positive people have been arrested and/or prosecuted for consensual sex, biting, and spitting. At least eighty such prosecutions have occurred in the last two years alone.

Similarly, laws that criminalize drug users based on their health status as addicts and put prohibitions and penalties on safe drug use result in dramatically increased rates of HIV and other communicable diseases in the drug user population and the community at large, as well as a higher risk of over-dose, and stigma against drug users. The effect is compounded when drug users are incarcerated or institutionalized because of current drug policy. In fact, outside of sub-Saharan Africa injection drug use accounts for one in three new HIV infections.

At the 2010 International Aids Conference in Vienna, Austria, the international scientific community released the Vienna Declaration calling for acknowledgment of the limits and harms of drug prohibition, and for drug policy reform to remove barriers to effective HIV prevention, treatment and care. Criminalizing people based on health status is not only dangerous to the general public but a violation of an individual’s basic human rights. As Anand Grover, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to health, explained:

The right to health is an inclusive right, extending not only to timely and appropriate health care, but also to the underlying determinants of health, such as widespread implementation of harm-reduction initiatives. The criminalization of drug users does not benefit society and it worsens public health and contributes to serious human rights violations.

Declare your support of evidence-based drug policy and sign the Vienna Declaration today.

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