The only way is bottom-up

The UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs is meeting in Vienna this week, an annual  gathering of governments, experts and civil society that will attempt to pick up the pieces after last year’s UN General Assembly Special Session on drug policy failed to usher the era of drug reforms that so many of us had hoped for. And so, expectations for Vienna are understandably low. As I’m told, the gap between hardliners and reformers appears to be widening again.


Richard Branson Ending The War on Drugs

And indeed, some global developments are deeply worrying. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June with a bold and aggressive pledge to eliminate the drug trade and kill most drug dealers within months. More than 7,000 people have since fallen victim to a brutal and indiscriminate killing campaign led by police and vigilante groups alike. Many of the victims are innocent bystanders or non-violent drug users. Increasingly, the President’s reign of terror is also targeting opposition leaders and human rights defenders. Senator Leila de Lima, one of the President’s most vocal critics and a former Chair of the Philippines Commission for Human Rights, was arrested on February 24th on fabricated drug trafficking charges and has been detained since. To make things worse, the country’s House of Representatives on February voted to reinstate the death penalty for drug offences, after it had been abolished in 2004.

Of course, none of these brutal measures in blatant violation of universal human rights law will make the Philippines any safer. The drug trade will always be there, controlled entirely by an illicit and criminal industry that usually finds a way to connect supply and demand. President Duterte should look no further than Latin America, where governments have decades of experience fighting a futile and ultimately ineffective war on drugs.

war_on_drugs_debate_Gareth Davies.jpg

With my colleagues of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, I have often said that the only thing that will help bring drugs under control is an approach that treats drug use a public health issue, removes all criminal sanctions for personal possession and use and explores pathways to regulation. Prohibition and criminalisation will only make things worse.

Thankfully, there are local developments around the world that make me feel hopeful about the long-term prospect for reform. Take a look at Israel, where the cabinet last week approved a long-debated measure to decriminalise cannabis. A similar measure is being debated in the British Virgin Islands, where I have been living for many years. I hope the government will take this conversation forward and end the needless criminalisation of people who use drugs, but cause no harm. 

Richard Branson and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, New York UNGASS 2016

I also applaud Chief Constable Mike Barton of Durham in the UK, who has been weathering a storm for his plan to create the country’s first medically supervised injection facility where staff will be providing heroin to drug users. This is sensible harm reduction that will lower acquisitive crime and reduce overdose deaths. It will also reduce the burden on an already stretched police force.

In sum, these developments show that meaningful reform will have to be driven from the bottom up. I hope the coming years will see a groundswell of innovation and reform to end the failed policies of the last six decades.


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