The war on drugs has failed, causing devastating impact on societies and economies worldwide. Through a collection of 12 insightful essays from leading global changemakers, the recently published book, Ending the War on Drugs, highlights the need for urgent refroms to drug policy.

In this excerpt, Ruth Dreifuss, former president of the Swiss Confederation, leader of the federation of labour unions and former Head of the Department of Home Affairs, shares her views on the failing war on drugs, ridiculing how current drug policy is in fact killing for the sake of ‘health and welfare’. 

“The global drug control regime, enshrined in three international conventions, pretends to align all states behind the aim of promoting health and welfare for mankind. But the repressive and harmful nature of the policies implementing these conventions is a far cry from realising this noble objective.

By focusing on the prohibition of production, sale and consumption of a growing list of psychoactive substances, and by criminalising the whole chain of the drug market, most governments fail to consider the impact the resulting constant fear of punishment has on access to medical and social support. They ignore the fact that forcing people to consume drugs in hiding leads to unsafe use – unsafe for the consumer, but also for society through the spread of transmissible diseases. They also chase the mirage that, through the harassment of consumers, dealers, drug mules and farmers, those leading the criminal organisations in control of the global drug trade can be neutralised. They cannot. 

Repression: the standard response

Ever since the first Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was adopted in 1961, the standard response to the steady increase in drug supply and demand has been yet more repression. This trend was reinforced after the adoption of the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which required that ‘each Party shall … establish as criminal offences’ all activities prohibited under the international regime.

The Conventions require that in addition to production and trafficking, all preparation activities (possession, purchase and cultivation) must also be established as criminal offences – unless it would be unconstitutional or contrary to basic concepts of the country’s legal system. In other words, respect for the most basic principles, guaranteeing the fundamental rights of the person, are left to national discretion – 40 years after the adoption of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights!

The UN conventions do allow Member States also to add measures such as treatment, education, aftercare, rehabilitation or social integration to their responses, or, in the case of a minor offence, to replace conviction or punishment entirely with them.

Virgin Unite, UNGASS, drug policy, Richard Branson, 2016

However, the conventions give far greater weight to punishment and criminal sanction, while medical and social interventions are only described as secondary alternatives to law enforcement. This prioritisation was translated into most domestic laws and practices, until the death toll became so high, and the negative impacts on communities so obvious, that at least in some countries political shifts towards public health had to be undertaken.

And yet millions of people – most of them non-violent offenders – are still incarcerated for offences against national drug laws. Thousands suffering from addiction are detained in compulsory ‘treatment’ centres without their consent. Bearing the stigma of a criminal record, often rejected by society, and at great risk of relapsing, many of them will endure a ‘social death’. 

One of the most appalling examples of the link between drug policy and mass incarceration is the United States of America: the prison population has roughly doubled every 20 years, from a quarter of a million in 1975 to over one million in 1995 and over two million in 2015. A large proportion of those in prison were sentenced for drug-related crimes, including possession, under a regime of mandatory minimum sentences that doesn’t give judges any choice other than to impose lengthy prison terms.

The cruelty and inefficacy of mass incarceration and long detention is becoming increasingly obvious. As a result, the criminalisation of drug users and the proportionality of sentencing for drug crimes are – rightly – progressively influencing the global drug policy debate.”

Virgin Unite, UNGASS, drug policy, Richard Branson, 2016

This is an excerpt from Ending the War of Drugs – available for order now.

We will be publishing a number of essays from the book over the coming months. In the meantime visit our In Focus: war on drugs page for more blogs like this.