Founded after the terrible medical experiments of the Nazis in World War II, the World Medical Association has been the leading international voice on ethical medical practice ever since.  WMA declarations have set the international ethical standard for clinical trials and practice on issues ranging from medical experimentation without consent to doctor participation in torture.  Today, the WMA focused on a little-known and abusive practice that is too common:  detention and degrading "treatment" of people who use drugs in the name of rehabilitation.

As many as an estimated 400,000 people worldwide are currently held in drug detention centers— sometimes for years at a time— on suspicion of using drugs or because of a positive urine test.  Most get no medical evaluation, and no treatment—for drug addiction, TB, or HIV.  Though these centers are called "rehabilitation," "treatment," or education centers, what goes on inside is not based on research or accepted medical principles so much as the desire to discipline and punish.

Patients' human rights are frequently violated, said the WMA and the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organizations (IFHHRO).  Drug users are beaten, starved, and forced to labor—often in the service of private companies.  The number of such "treatment" centers has continued to grow in recent years. The two prominent medical organizations today denounced the practice of involuntary drug detention and called for all compulsory drug treatment facilities to be closed.

“The medical community has recognized that treatment of addiction, like treatment for any disease or condition, should be undertaken in the best interests of the patient and according to established principles of medical ethics,” said Dr. Wonchat Subhachaturas, WMA’s president said in a statement.

Dr. Adriaan van Es, IFHHRO’s director, echoed this sentiment. “As in other forms of medical care, drug dependency treatment should be voluntary and should respect and validate the autonomy of the individual,” he said.

The World Medical Association and IFHHRO call for the closing of abusive drug detention centres.

The drug detention centers are really prisons by another name, and most operate outside either the medical or criminal justice system.  National police, military forces, and other public security authorities run most drug detention camps.  Detainees suspected of drug use can be held without trial, an appearance before a judge, or right of appeal. While some people do enter such facilities by choice, most do not, and those who attempt to leave are often beaten by the "teachers" who staff the centers. "Drug therapy should be administered according to professional guidelines and supervised by specially trained physicians," Subhachaturas said.

The WMA and IFHHRO urge compulsory drug treatment be replaced “with evidence-based, voluntary drug treatment in the community that adheres to ethical standards and human rights norms,” the two groups said today.

With this message, the WMA and IFHHRO join a growing chorus of voices worldwide calling for the end of involuntarily drug detention centers, and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatments in health care settings.  We hope that other professional medical associations--and people who believe that care should not be mixed with cruelty—join what WMA and IFFHRO have started.

To find out how you can help, please visit the Campaign to Stop Torture in Health Care and visit the Open Society Foundations blog.

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