By Inga Platais

Inga Platais is currently a second-year student at CUSSW. Her article originally appeared on March 24 in The Messenger, an English daily newspaper out of the Republic of Georgia.

With the disbursement of the Global Fund grants in Georgia, the government has an unprecedented opportunity to develop a comprehensive national program that addresses the increase of drug users in Georgia and provides treatment for those who seek it. The key to the success of such a program is to listen to those who use drugs rather than prosecute them.

Police crackdowns and arrests is a way to send a message to other users that punishment for illegal activities is actively enforced. President Saakashvili’s annual address to the Georgian Parliament in February 2006 did just that, he announced a draft law with zero tolerance for petty crimes, including drug possession. In his speech, President Saakashvili called for building a new 3,000 person prison in Tbilisi, drug testing of all state employees, and he promised that according to the new law, judges would not be “able to release anyone on the basis of their owns views on humane reasons.”

However, tactics such as severe criminal penalties for drug possession and use, city-wide anti-drug campaigns designed to shame users, and police harassment and arrest of users who purchase needles at local pharmacies drive drug users further underground. Social stigma and discrimination leads to isolation from social support networks such as family and friends and decrease in the user’s standard of living. In addition to social justice issues, drug use is a public health concern. Drug injection while using shared needles is the predominant route of HIV transmission in Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia. Lack of non-judgmental educational programs and adequate medical services tailored to the needs of drug users will spike the HIV infection rates among users and eventually lead to transmission to the general population.

Drug addiction is an illness. It requires individualized treatment. When treatment is ineffective, alternative methods that promote healthy and normal living for drug dependent individuals and those around them should to be offered. It is also a drug user’s right to choose the most appropriate treatment that fits his or her lifestyle. When abstinence is not an option, substitution treatment, such as methadone and buprenorphine maintenance, has been shown to be an effective way to lead a productive and meaningful life. Other harm reduction initiatives such as needle exchanges, safe injection rooms, and health information sharing is vital in maintaining the health and human rights of drug users.

Drug use is a social reality in Georgia. It does not just affect the user; it affects the user’s family, friends, place of work, and the rest of Georgia’s population. Changing the way that a drug user is perceived by the law enforcement agencies is the first step in addressing the rising numbers of users in Georgia. Taking into the account drug users’ needs and choice in treatment is the second step in provision of appropriate treatment and subsequently improvement of the lives of users and those around them. Local and international drug user advocacy programs are ready to offer their expertise and experience – and Georgia’s government has to be willing to listen.

Note: Georgia’s President, Mikhail Saakashvili, partially retracted his statement on zero-tolerance towards drug users a few days before the article went to print.

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