Drugs are dangerous, but current narcotics policies are an even bigger threat because punishment is given a greater priority than health and human rights. It’s time for regulations that put lives and safety first, argues former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
In my experience, good public policy is best shaped by the dispassionate analysis of what in practice has worked, or not. Policy based on common assumptions and popular sentiments can become a recipe for mistaken prescriptions and misguided interventions.
Nowhere is this divorce between rhetoric and reality more evident than in the formulation of global drug policies, where too often emotions and ideology rather than evidence have prevailed.
Take the case of the medical use of cannabis. By looking carefully at the evidence from the United States, we now know that legalizing the use of cannabis for medical purposes has not, as opponents argued, led to an increase in its use by teenagers. By contrast, there has been a near tripling of American deaths from heroin overdoses between 2010 and 2013, even though the law and its severe punishments remain unchanged.
This year, between April 19 and 21, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a special session on drugs and the world will have a chance to change course. As we approach that event, we need to ask ourselves if we are on the right policy path. More specifically, how do we deal with what the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has called the “unintended consequences” of the policies of the last 50 years, which have helped, among other things, to create a vast, international criminal market in drugs that fuels violence, corruption and instability? Just think of the 16,000 murders in Mexico in 2013, many of which are directly linked to drug trafficking.
A War on People
Globally, the “war on drugs” has not succeeded. Some estimate that enforcing global prohibition costs at least $100 billion (€90.7 billion) a year, but as many as 300 million people now use drugs worldwide, contributing to a global illicit market with a turnover of $330 billion a year, one of the largest commodity markets in the world.
Prohibition has had little impact on the supply of or demand for drugs. When law enforcement succeeds in one area, drug production simply moves to another region or country, drug trafficking moves to another route and drug users switch to a different drug. Nor has prohibition significantly reduced use. Studies have consistently failed to establish the existence of a link between the harshness of a country’s drug laws and its levels of drug use. The widespread criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs, the over-crowded prisons, mean that the war on drugs is, to a significant degree, a war on drug users — a war on people.
Africa is sadly an example of these problems. The West Africa Commission on Drugs, which my foundation convened, reported last year that the region has now become not only a major transit point between producers in Latin America and consumers in Europe, but an area where consumption is increasing. Drug money, and the criminality associated with it, is fostering corruption and violence. The stability of countries and the region as a whole is under threat.
I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more. We all want to protect our families from the potential harm of drugs. But if our children do develop a drug problem, surely we will want them cared for as patients in need of treatment and not branded as criminals.
Stop Stigmatizing and Start Helping
The tendency in many parts of the world to stigmatize and incarcerate drug users has prevented many from seeking medical treatment. In what other areas of public health do we criminalize patients in need of help? Punitive measures have sent many people to prison, where their drug use has worsened. A criminal record for a young person for a minor drug offence can be a far greater threat to their well-being than occasional drug use.
The original intent of drug policy, according to the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, was to protect the “health and welfare of mankind.” We need to refocus international and national policy on this key objective.
This requires us to take four critical steps.
First, we must decriminalize personal drug use. The use of drugs is harmful and reducing those harms is a task for the public health system, not the courts. This must be coupled with the strengthening of treatment services, especially in middle and low-income countries.
Second, we need to accept that a drug-free world is an illusion. We must focus instead on ensuring that drugs cause the least possible harm. Harm reduction measures, such as needle exchange programs, can make a real difference. Germany adopted such measures early on and the level of HIV infections among injecting drug users is close to 5 percent, compared to over 40 percent in some countries which resist this pragmatic approach.
Third, we have to look at regulation and public education rather than the total suppression of drugs, which we know will not work. The steps taken successfully to reduce tobacco consumption (a very powerful and damaging addiction) show what can be achieved. It is regulation and education, not the threat of prison, which has cut the number of smokers in many countries. Higher taxes, restrictions on sale and effective anti-smoking campaigns have delivered the right results.
Source: Kofi Annan Foundation