Legal barriers, stigma keep young people who use drugs in harm’s way

For millions of young people who use drugs from Asia and the Pacific, services that could improve their health, encourage recovery and bring about a better quality of life are often denied. Stigma, discriminatory laws and policies prevent many people who use drugs from accessing the benefits of harm reduction programmes.

Eliminating such barriers was the focus of “Access to Harm Reduction Services for Young People Who Inject Drugs in Asia and the Pacific”, a session held on 20 October as part of the 24th International Harm Reduction Conference (IHRC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Youth LEAD ran the session, which was supported by UNESCO Bangkok.

The dynamic and interactive discussion brought together advocates for marginalized youth from throughout the region for a discussion on systems that too often fail the health needs of young people.


According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, there are an estimated 3-4 million people who use drugs in Asia and the Pacific.  A few studies show many start in their late teens or twenties, but more strategic information is needed.aYoung-key-populations-slides-May-2015

“[The] war on drugs forces people who use drugs to hide and become invisible, making it difficult for HIV programmers to collect information and design effective evidence-based interventions,” said Jeffry Acaba, Education and Research Lead of Youth LEAD, who lead the session.

Needle and syringe sharing is common among young people who inject drugs. Data from six countries shows that HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs under 25 ranges from 5% to more than 40%.

New data on needle and syringe programmes and opiate substitution therapy, released at the conference showed only 13 countries in the region have laws and policies that enable independent consent for young people to access harm reduction services.

mid1“Age restrictions and parental consent requirements continue to be significant barriers for young people and prevent their access to services they need to safeguard their health,” said Justine Sass, UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Regional HIV and Health Education Adviser.

The criminalization of drug use also keeps young people from accessing harm reduction services. Eleven countries continue to use compulsory treatment and rehabilitation centres for people who use drugs as their primary approach to treatment.

“Many young people who use drugs fear that if they use harm reduction services they will be reported to authorities and will face criminal charges,” said Brianna Harrison, UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific Human Rights Adviser. “We hope the new data set will inform efforts by policy makers and other key stakeholders including young people and help us reach zero discrimination.”

12143301_1197848786898064_595781720126185186_nThe youth advocates at the session closed by issuing a call to action for governments to revisit their policies and focus on measures that not only make harm reduction services more accessible and drug use less of a punitive measure, but also that recognize the transformative power of young people. Such measures include removing age restrictions and parental consent requirements as well as disseminating clear guidance for health workers and ensuring that young people are not subject to compulsory detention for drug dependency treatment.

For more information on the new data click here: Infographic

Report: “Young people and the Law in Asia and the Pacific: A review of laws and policies affecting young people’s access to sexual and reproductive health and HIV services”: study by UNESCO, UNFPA, UNAIDS, UNDP and Youth LEAD:

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