Irina Teplinskaya, from the Eurasian Network of People Who Use Drugs and INPUD, opened up the thematic session on ‘HIV and Enabling Legal Environments’ with a moving personal account of the discrimination she has faced as a drug user in Russia. You can read an extended version of her speech on the Rylkov Foundation website.
I am listed as a representative of a key population – and that obliges me to speak not with a language of cold mind and faceless figures, but with a language of the heart. My life is like a mirror showing a bigger general picture; it gives an example of what’s happening to millions of people using drugs in many parts of Eastern Europe and in many other places around the world.
I am 44, and for the past 30 years I have been dependent on opiate drugs. According to the definitions of the World Health Organization and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, drug dependency is a chronic health condition. People who are dependent on drugs are outcast by default; they are socially isolated and deprived of their civic rights!
Thirty years have passed since the discovery of HIV. During those years the disease took the lives of millions of people all over the world. The whole world has united to stop human deaths and pain, and we know how to stop it. We have overcome many things already and many parts of the world are making very good progress. Some have even largely overcome their HIV epidemics. We have developed prevention strategies to protect people from infection in the most difficult situations. It is now possible to control drug use with opioid substitution therapy. Finally, antiretroviral therapy to treat HIV appeared! But imagine the despair of knowing these lifesaving approaches exist but then having to live in a country where science and practice has been replaced by lies and repression.
In the countries where opiate substitution therapy is available, drug-addicted women, like any other women, can have babies, nurse and raise them without risking their health or lives.
Prison sentences that we are getting for insignificant drug-related offences are disproportionate to the severity of those offences. For many of us prison conditions equal death sentence because of the absence of the drugs to treat HIV, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis and substitution therapy.
I have spent 16 years in prisons, sentenced to jail for purchasing and possessing drugs for personal use relating to my chronic health condition! I acquired hepatitis C and HIV because I did not have access to harm reduction services recommended by the WHO and endorsed by this UNAIDS Board. Last time I was in prison, in 2007, I developed AIDS and had tuberculosis. I was denied my right to HIV treatment in prison and I had to go on hunger strikes and to open veins to force the prison service to give me healthcare treatment and because of this action my peers in prison were also given treatment.
I was a health care assistant for 2 years in a tuberculosis hospital. During this time I witnessed the deaths of more than 200 friends of mine, all young people, quite talented and promising. Almost all of them died for one common reason – they were opioid-dependent, and they came for treatment on last stages of TB, when it was already too late to help them.
In Russia we tell a story. Before people knew that the world was round, they told a story that the world rested on 3 whales and a turtle. Prison, discrimination and death are the three whales and bad drug policy is the turtle that rests on the three whales! When governments undermine HIV prevention and treatment by criminalising my community and tell us that harm reduction doesn’t work, it as if I am back in world before science. Criminalizing people who use drugs ensures that HIV will continue to spread and destroy people’s lives. It is time to recognise the truth about harm reduction and human rights just like previous generations who recognised that the world wasn’t really flat as they then thought.