Ending the war on drugs, the challenges and opportunities ahead

Last week’s Vienna meeting of the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs was an important stepping stone on the road to 2016, when world leaders will come together in New York to discuss drug policy in a special session of the UN General Assembly, also known as the UNGASS.

As dry as these diplomatic gatherings appear, they play a key role in our effort to end the war on drugs; try new approaches to drug policy that reduce harm; end the criminalisation of drug users and keep non-violent drug offenders out of prison; and treat drugs overall as a health issue. 

If all goes well, the UNGASS may set the stage for a first-ever, evidence-based review of those devastating policies that have caused so much unnecessary suffering.

Image by Gareth Davies

Part of the struggle is that many countries shy away from any kind of reform effort, fearful of challenging the status quo and violating the international drug control conventions they signed many years ago. That’s why it is all the more remarkable that some national experiments have gone ahead, anyway. Portugal decriminalised all drug use in 2001, and made serious investment in health services for people who use drugs, with very positive outcomes, particularly when it comes to drug deaths and HIV or Hepatitis infections. Just last year, Uruguay decided to take matters into its own hands and introduced the regulated production and sale of cannabis. And in the US, four states now have legal cannabis markets, with more on the horizon.

These are hugely promising developments, but the Vienna meeting has also shown what challenges lie ahead. Countries like Russia, Iran, China, Cuba and Egypt have become strange bedfellows when it comes to drug policy, opposing most, if not all, efforts to even discuss the evidence. Some still execute large numbers of people for drug-related offences – in direct contravention of international law. Others refuse to offer any form of harm reduction service, leading to countless deaths and endless heartbreak.

Image from www.needtotalkaboutdrugs.com

What’s encouraging, however, is that the broad prohibitionist consensus is breaking down in places. The UN Development Program (UNDP) has recently stepped forward and issued a devastating verdict on the war on drugs:

"As various UN organizations have observed, these [enforcement] efforts have had harmful collateral consequences: creating a criminal black market; fuelling corruption, violence, and instability; threatening public health and safety; generating large-scale human rights abuses, including abusive and inhumane punishments; and discrimination and marginalization of people who use drugs, indigenous peoples, women, and youth".

Image by Rebecca Bowring

Statements like these, and the examples from Portugal and Uruguay, give me hope that common sense may actually prevail over the stubborn and false idea that a public health challenges can be addressed with punitive enforcement, or that a drug-free society can actually be achieved.

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