California just took a major step in the (achingly slow) process of decriminalizing HIV.
On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill lowering the “crime” of knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV without first disclosing one’s status from a felony to a misdemeanor.
The bill was authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco and Assemblyman Todd Gloria of San Diego, who argued that drugs like PrEP and PEP allow people with HIV to live longer, healthier lives. They also nearly eliminate the possibility of transmission.
In fact, just a few days ago, the CDC announced people living with HIV and taking the effective medication to suppress the virus cannot pass it on through sex, and that it will be updating its guidelines accordingly.
“Today California took a major step toward treating HIV as a public health issue, instead of treating people living with HIV as criminals,” Sen. Scott Wiener said in a statement shortly after Brown signed the bill.
HIV criminalization laws first emerged in the 1980s in response to the AIDS epidemic.
A total of 67 laws explicitly focused on persons living with HIV had been enacted in 33 states. These laws vary as to what behaviors are criminalized or result in additional penalties. In 24 states, laws require persons who are aware that they have HIV to disclose their status to sexual partners and 14 states require disclosure to needle-sharing partners. Twenty-five states criminalize one or more behaviors that pose a low or negligible risk for HIV transmission.
But many have argued these laws ignore decades of medical science, fail to actually reduce infection rates, and disproportionately punish black men, as HIV rates are higher among people of color.
Both the American Medical Association and the Infectious Diseases Society of America have publicly condemned laws criminalizing HIV.
“We are going to end new HIV infections, and we will do so not by threatening people with state prison time, but rather by getting people to test and providing them access to care,” Wiener said.
Rick Zbur, the executive director of Equality California, says the law “is not only fair, but it’s good public health,” and will be “good for all Californians.”
“With his signature, Governor Brown has moved California’s archaic HIV laws out of the 1980s and into the 21st century,” Zbur said.