The war on drugs is a failure that is fuelling the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, according to a new report from an international panel of experts.

The report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy — which includes six former presidents, British business magnate Richard Branson and former Supreme Court of Canada Justice and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour — condemns tough enforcement policies that focus on criminalization and punishment over prevention and public health programs.

The report, which was formally released Tuesday, calls on political leaders from the municipal up to the international level to ditch "repressive" drug policies in favour of an "evidence-based" approach.

"Act urgently: The war on drugs has failed, and millions of new HIV infections and AIDS deaths can be averted if action is taken now," it reads.

The war on drugs has led to increased availability, lower prices and higher potency of drugs, as well as a heightened role of organized crime, the report warns.

Making several key recommendations for reform, the report urges a halt to the practice of arresting and imprisoning people who use drugs but don't harm others. It also calls for more substitution and heroin-assisted treatment programs and an end to "wasteful" spending on law enforcement measures that divert money from prevention and treatment programs.

"Countries that have adopted evidence-based addiction treatment and public health measures have seen their HIV epidemics among people who use drugs — as well as rates of injecting drug use — dramatically decline," the report reads.

"Clear consensus guidelines exist for achieving this success, but HIV prevention tools have been under-utilized while harmful drug war policies have been slow to change."

Addiction a health issue

Pointing to examples such as the U.S., Russia and Thailand, the report says countries that "ignored" scientific evidence have had "devastating consequences," while those countries that treat addiction as a health issue like Australia, Portugal and Switzerland have proven effective in lowering HIV rates.

War-on-drug policies lead to high-risk behaviour by driving people underground, away from testing and prevention services such as sterile syringes and creates fear of police and stigma, the report suggests. It also spreads violence and leads to mass incarceration.

The report comes as Canada's Conservative government comes under fire for passing tough-on-drugs legislation — a policy direction that has drawn condemnation in past from the international panel. But the report singles out positive progress in British Columbia, where public health interventions like syringe distribution, substitution programs and medically supervised injecting facilities have led to historic low rates of HIV.

"That is one story for Canada, but of course at the federal  level there has been an increasing emphasis recently on treating addiction as a criminal justice issue, and we're fairly unique internationally for taking that approach," said Dr. Evan Wood, professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.

"Even in the United States, the real birthplace of the war on drugs, they're now heading in a different direction." Wood told CBC News. "The Titanic is slowly turning around in the U.S., while in Canada we're entrenching the view that drug addiction is a criminal justice issue."

HIV rate highest among aboriginal women

Wood said there are particularly high rates of HIV/AIDS in certain populations, such as aboriginal and incarcerated prisoner groups. HIV infection rates are an estimated seven to 10 times higher among federal inmates than the general public, with the highest rate among aboriginal women, at 11.7 per cent.

And while there is a public health interest in reversing this trend, Wood said there is also a financial benefit: it costs an estimated $500,000 in life-time costs for each case of HIV infection.

But the Conservative government insists its policies are in the best interests of Canadians.

"Our government has a responsibility to protect families and communities from the harmful effects of the illicit drug trade. This is a responsibility that our government takes very seriously," said Julie Di Mambro, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson.

"We remain concerned with all of the risks associated with the use of illicit drugs. That is why our Government is continuing its efforts under the National Anti-Drug Strategy (NADS), which focuses on prevention and access to treatment for those with drug dependencies, while at the same time getting tough on drug dealers and producers who threaten the safety of our youth and communities."

The report is being released in advance of next month's international AIDS conference in Washington, D.C.

The commissioner members include: Cesar Gaviria, former president of Columbia; Ernesto Zedillo, former president of Mexico; former president of Chile Ricardo Lagos; Aleksander Kwasniewski, former president of Poland; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil and George Papandreou, former president of Greece.