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Obama drug policy encourages activists in developing world

At Bangkok meeting, they cheer support for needle exchanges but urge further steps toward 'harm reduction.'

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Yet at the same time, life expectancy for people in the developing world living with HIV/AIDS has improved dramatically, as retroviral drugs have become more available Even in countries like Botswana, where infection rates are estimated at 1 in 4 adults, life expectancy is improving.

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"The latest data on survival shows amazing progress in the world, both in developed and developing world, now that we're expanding access to treatment on a large scale, but no progress on IDUs," says Kazatchkine.

From boot camp to outreach

Conservatives in the US have argued that harm reduction sends the wrong message and is a back-door route to legalizing drugs. That view is popular in Asia, where governments often send addicts to military-style boot camps that inmates say are abusive and have low success rates.

But some countries in the region are also quietly reaching out to drug users, recognizing that punitive measures don't address the health risks associated with unsafe injections. Experts say the rapid spread of HIV has shifted the approach of law-and-order policymakers: China is rolling out methadone clinics and outreach services, for example, and Indonesia is inviting activists into jails.

"It's one of the very powerful arguments that we use with governments and that they need to think about. Many of the epidemics of HIV in this region have been, and continue to be, driven by the spread of HIV among drug users because they don't have access to a comprehensive package [of services]," says Gray Sattler, a regional advisor on HIV/AIDS at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok.

This newfound enthusiasm doesn't mean Asian governments are going soft on drugs. In Malaysia and Indonesia, convicted traffickers can face the death penalty. The 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have pledged to make their region drug-free by 2015.

"In Southeast Asia, people believe in abstinence. Even organizations that run harm-reduction programs, they don't fully believe in harm reduction," Shaharudin bin Ali Umar, a Malaysian former drug addict, told the conference.

'War on drugs' critics raise their voices

While the battle against HIV/AIDS is influencing drugs policy in Asia, reformers in the US are seizing on the upsurge in drug violence in Mexico and the shortfall in state taxes to sharpen their criticism of the war on drugs.

Critical voices in Congress, like that of Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), are echoing the signals from the White House, says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance based in New York.

"These state budget crises we haven't seen since the Depression, and that's forcing a rethink on priorities. There's a notion that locking up vast numbers of people is a luxury that we can no longer afford," he says.