HIV criminalization is a complex issue. In the time when many of the laws concerning HIV were first established, there was widespread public fear about HIV and AIDS along with significant bias against members of the LGBTQ community who were severely impacted by the epidemic. The combination of that fear and prejudice fueled a lack of action from the medical establishment and a law-and-order reaction from government bodies.
Community activists and public health officials during the 1980s urged politicians, pharmaceutical companies, and other major medical institutions to divert resources to supporting research for treatments and cures as well as public health campaigns. They even specifically addressed the issue of criminalization, pleading to lawmakers that criminal laws were not a replacement for public health efforts. HIV is not a crime. It is a medical condition and should be addressed as such. Unfortunately, these pleas were largely ignored, and laws were passed to prosecute non-disclosure, exposure, and transmission of HIV.
Today, there are twenty-six states that have HIV-specific criminal statutes on their books, penalizing people for consensual, otherwise non-criminal acts all because they are living with a particular virus. Missouri is one of these states. Fortunately, advocates from across the state are standing up to do something about it.
On Wednesday, December 11, Representatives Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston) and Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis) held a press conference to discuss legislation they had filed to modernize HIV-specific criminal codes in Missouri for the third year in a row. Our bill sponsors were joined by Cale Mitchell of Spectrum Healthcare, David Dandridge of Williams & Associates, and advocates from the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition to provide statements of support for these bills. Along with the people in the room at the press conference, doctors, AIDS service organizations, and other groups from across the state sent in written statements of support for the efforts. Senator Shalonn “Kiki” Curls (D-Kansas City), who will sponsor this legislation on the Senate side, also prepared comments as she was unable to attend the pre-filing event.
As the United States deals with the HIV epidemic, it is also grappling with another: the opioid epidemic. While this public health crisis impacts people across our nation, rural communities have been significantly impacted. This has also led to major outbreaks of new HIV diagnoses in some of those communities. Rep. Rehder, who has been a champion in the General Assembly on issues of addiction and mental health, connected the effort to modernize HIV to the opioid crisis in her remarks. We know that of the top 220 counties at risk for rapid increases in HIV infections due to needle sharing, 13 are in Missouri and located in rural parts of the state.
Rep. Rehder talked about two other bills she filed that day on prescription drug monitoring and syringe access programs and linked those issues with the need to modernize HIV-specific laws. To best support rural Missourians experiencing the impact of these epidemics, we must work to destigmatize HIV and addiction by modernizing current criminal laws, establishing a prescription drug monitoring program, and providing access to clean syringes for people who inject drugs.
Since AIDS first made headlines, activists have pushed the medical community to treat those impacted with compassion and to take action by developing treatments and searching for cures. Thanks to that pressure, we have gained significant knowledge about the virus, how to treat it, and how to prevent it. Rep. McCreery addressed these advancements in her remarks at the press conference. “Our statutes should reflect the current reality that people living with HIV can live full, healthy, robust lives,” she noted.
Our supporters built on these points in their own remarks. Lynne Meyerkord of AIDS Project of the Ozarks wrote, “HIV positive individuals who are on medication and have an undetectable viral load can no longer transmit the HIV virus. Additionally, folks who are HIV negative can take a pill daily to prevent themselves from becoming infected.”
Along with these advancements, there is also medication that can be taken after someone may have been exposed to prevent the occurrence of the infection, a point brought up in the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition’s remarks. Each of these particular medical advancements was mentioned in almost every statement read or submitted for Wednesday’s media event.
One of the most important points brought up during this press conference and in the statements submitted for it was how these laws were created out of fear and increase the stigma of HIV. “The severe penalties of HIV-specific criminal codes spring from bias, misinformation, and fear. They increase stigma, drive testing and treatment underground, and serve to spread HIV by discouraging people to know their status or to seek appropriate treatment if HIV positive,” stated Dr. Fred Rottnek of Saint Louis University in his written letter of support. David Dandridge of Williams & Associates delivered impassioned remarks on behalf of their CEO, Erise Williams, Jr.:
“These laws prosecute HIV-positive individuals for acts of consensual protected or unprotected sex, spitting, or biting…….Minority communities, across the state, that are disproportionately impacted by the AIDS epidemic, know firsthand the impact of being over-policed; and having their lifestyle and behavior viewed as criminal acts, only add to the stigma of HIV/AIDS and makes ending the AIDS epidemic an impossible dream.”
Thirty-five years ago, our country was living in a state of the unknown when it came to HIV. Lawmakers at all levels decided to treat that unknown as a crime. Today, we have commitments from the highest levels of government to end the HIV epidemic, attempting to reach internationally set standards in the next ten years. If we want to end transmission of the virus, then we must address the stigma of HIV and how medically inaccurate criminal statutes targeting non-disclosure only encourage stigma and hurt our overall goals.
In Missouri, we have an opportunity this legislative session to go even further than we have before with HIV policy modernization. With bills filed on both sides of the General Assembly and support from all corners of the state, we will reach more lawmakers to educate them on the reality of HIV and to ask them to join this movement. Keep up with our progress by signing up for our mailing list and tracking the bills using Fast Democracy.
Are you a person living with HIV who wants to be a part of this movement? Are you an organization ready to be on the frontlines of this advocacy work? Join the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition! Contact [email protected] for more information.