By Takayuki Harada, Global Drug Policy Program, Open Society Foundations

Asia boasts some of the harshest laws in the world, including the death penalty for drugs and caning of drug users. These laws steer people away from lifesaving health services and fill prisons with people in need of treatment.

However, there are regional pioneers that are charting new courses on drug policy. With the support of the Open Society Foundations, researchers from Mejiro University went on a fact-finding mission to learn about alternative approaches in the region and beyond.

In Taiwan, we encountered a burgeoning harm reduction movement that is successfully stemming a startling increase in HIV. For example, there were typically a few hundred new HIV infections per year, but in 2004, the number increased to 1,520. The following year, 3,380 new infections were detected, most from injecting drug users.

In response, the Centers for Disease Control in Taiwan introduced harm reduction services that prioritized prevention of HIV, including needle exchanges and methadone maintenance therapy. Currently, about 20,000 syringe and needle kits are distributed every month in Taiwan. Since used syringes and needles are exchanged with new ones, 90 percent of the distributed syringes and needles have been collected.

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