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BC AIDS doctors join international chorus targeting the 'war on drugs'

VANCOUVER -- Two prominent Canadian doctors have joined an international campaign calling on world leaders to stop the spread of AIDS by ending the so called war on drugs.

Their advertising campaign is being launched today and is endorsed by supporters of the 2010 Vienna Declaration, which urges governments to write evidence-based drug policies.

The campaign has a specific message for U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, "You can't end AIDS unless you end the war on drugs. It's dead simple."

Among those asking world leaders to show "leadership," "courage" and "to do the right thing" are British billionaire Richard Branson, the former presidents of Brazil and Colombia, and B.C. based AIDS specialists doctors, Evan Wood and Julio Montaner.

The campaign is being launched as delegates meet this week at a major international AIDS conference in Washington.

"I think people are really starting to question the war on drugs," said Wood, lead researcher at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and chair of the Vienna Declaration. "I think globally we're seeing a real shift in terms of public opinion and a recognition that addiction should be treated more as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue."

Wood said that while HIV infection rates are falling around the globe, the number of cases appears to be rising in countries with aggressive policies for prosecuting drug related crimes.

He argues the war on drugs actually helps spread HIV in several ways.

It often forces addicts into hiding and out of the reach of health officials who can help protect them from the terrible dangers posed by intravenous drug use, he said. The data clearly shows, he added, that the HIV virus is spreading among prison inmates who mainline drugs.

Injection drug use accounts for one-third of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa, according to the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy. The centres estimate there are currently 34 million people worldwide living with HIV.

So far, the war on drugs has cost the U.S. economy more than $1 trillion, and each case of AIDS can cost the Canadian taxpayer about $500,000 in medical costs, Wood said.

When asked how successful the new campaign is likely to be in convincing American political leaders, Wood noted that economic times are tough and some states are now spending more money on incarceration than on education. He said three U.S. states will also ask voters during the November's presidential elections to cast ballots on the taxation and regulation of marijuana.

Wood said copies of the Vienna Declaration, signed by more than 23,400 people since 2010, will be delivered to world leaders, including Obama, Romney and the secretary general of the United Nations. In Ottawa, the office of federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq defended its efforts to battle HIV/AIDS.

"Our government is committed to addressing HIV/AIDS in Canada and is providing record amounts of funding to support research, vaccine development, public awareness, prevention, treatment, and support," the Health Ministry said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

Discussions about law enforcement and drugs, including such issues as mandatory minimum prison sentences and the decriminalization of marijuana, have been active across Canada in recent months.

At the Summit of the Americas in April, Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested he was open to discussing the war on drugs.

"I think what everyone believes and agrees with, and to be frank myself, is that the current approach is not working, but it is not clear what we should do," he told reporters.

This spring eight B.C. mayors wrote to provincial party leaders calling for regulation and taxation of marijuana.

In March, the chief health officers for British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia published a commentary, calling on the Harper government to rethink its mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug-related offences. Federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair has said he doesn't believe anyone should go to jail for possessing a small amount of marijuana, and interim Liberal leader Bob Rae has called Harper's drug policy "a failed policy, a jail policy."

In February, four former B.C. attorneys general said marijuana prohibition was fuelling gang wars and clogging the courts.

Joining the chorus were 28 current and former law-enforcement officials from the U.S., who are members of the group, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

They warned Canadian parliamentarians about mandatory-minimum sentencing laws for minor drug offences, calling the laws "costly failures."

Besides ending the war on drugs, Wood said he'd also like to see a transparent review of the effectiveness of drug policies. "The government has been collecting years of statistics on drug price and purity and rates of use," he said. "If you actually sit down and look at the government's own data it shows that this policy has been an astronomical failure."

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