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Australia Urges Asian Police to Ease Up on Drug Addicts

Australia is pressing Asian governments to review their tough stance on reducing narcotic use to keep from accelerating the spread of AIDS across the region. Australia hopes Asian law enforcement agencies place more emphasis on making clean needles available to addicts and less on outright punishment.

Australian officials are telling Asia's drug law enforcement forces that the best way to slow the spread of AIDS among those who inject narcotics is for police to be more flexible in dealing with addicts.

This week at a seminar in Thailand, an Australian delegation tried to reinforce the idea that police can help stem the spread of HIV/AIDS among those who inject illegal narcotics.

Peter Mahomet is a manager with the Australian government's HIV/AIDS regional assistance program.

"We're trying to encourage police to be supportive and allow injecting drug users to access services that help reduce the harm, reduce the HIV harm of injecting drugs," said Peter Mahomet. "Providing access to clean needles and syringes to avoid HIV transmission."

He says the sharing of needles and syringes by addicts is one of the most efficient means of transmitting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Along the drug trafficking routes in Thailand, southern China, Vietnam and Burma, as many as 60 percent of addicts who inject drugs are infected with HIV.

But the Australians might have a tough time convincing Asian authorities to change tactics.

Many Asian countries take a tough stance on narcotics trafficking. In Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and China, drug users and smugglers can face the death penalty.

Treatment for addicts often includes sending them to involuntary rehabilitation centers that usually fail to keep patients off drugs.

Mr. Mahomet warns that tough penalties force drug users underground, adding to the risk that they will share needles, and transmit the AIDS virus.

Australia adopted harm reduction programs in the 1990s in its fight against AIDS. Its tactics include drug substitution therapy, needle exchanges, health care and medical assistance.

Mr. Mahomet says Australia's message is clear, that while taking heroin is illegal, law enforcement will never eradicate drug usage.

"The message we're trying to convey to police forces is that you're not going to stop it all and therefore there has to be some sort of duty of care to the drug addicts where accepting that drug addiction is a medical condition not a crime," he said.

Mr. Mahomet says China has already adopted some of the practices by opening of special centers to assist addicts, including those taking antiretroviral drugs for the AIDS virus, and to help them avoid both social stigmatization and discrimination.