We have a global drug problem; or rather we have a global drug perception problem. In a recent report, The World Drug Perception Problem: Countering Prejudices about People Who Use Drugs, the Global Commission on Drug Policy makes the case that we need a rethink.

“Negative portrayals in politics and the media reinforce the perception that drug use is immoral and people who use drugs are a threat to society.”

Virgin Unite, drug policy, Global Commission on Drug Policy

Launched at Chatham House on January 9th, this latest publication looks to place those who have intimate knowledge of the subject at the centre of the debate. For too long we have overlooked the real experts – those who have consumed drugs, and those who may have suffered from dependency or addiction. An estimated quarter of a billion people (aged 15-64) currently use what we would define as illegal drugs, but only around 11.6 per cent are considered to suffer problematic use. The vast majority of those who consume drugs do so with little to no problems, so why do we still choose stigma, discrimination, and harsh punishments in our drug policies?

Our perception of drug harm is a driving force for the criminalisation of drugs. The report highlights how the United Nations’ scheduling and image of drug harm is not in line with scientific harm scales. In 2007 The Lancet published a relative harm scale for drugs, showing that our perception around drug harms is quite different to the actual evidence. Alcohol – despite being one of society’s most harmful drugs – is largely considered ‘safe’, and as such is not classed as a ‘controlled’ substance. This means that alcohol consumers, despite the relative harms, are not stigmatised or under any threat of punishment. This is not the case for other drugs; and therein lies the problem. As a society we can often build up a sense of moral purpose based on what we think we know, but what if our perception is built upon a falsehoods and misinformation? 

Virgin Unite, drug policy, Global Commission on Drug Policy

Our drug laws are constructed on a simplistic understanding of drug harms – the greater the risk to an individual and society, the greater the punishment for possession and production. As the report consistently points out, our view of drug harms is not accurate, and the resulting punitive policies arbitrarily place stigma upon those who consume certain drugs, pushing them to the fringes of our communities. Despite rates of drug dependency being far lower than we would imagine, it’s troubling to see that only one in six individuals with problematic drug use receives treatment. It’s also noted within the report that,

“..the vast majority of those who use drugs are not committing any crime other than the contravention of drug laws” and that “…in order to change how drug consumption is considered and how people who use drugs are treated, we need to shift our perceptions, and the first step is to change how we speak”.

The way we talk about our friends and family who may consume drugs has a butterfly effect (a concept that states that "small causes can have larger effects"). Society and policy makers interact with each other and our belief in the efficacy of drug laws has led to an alarming trend over the last few decades,

“…in many countries the death penalty is applied to some non-violent drug offenses, placing them de facto on a similar moral ground to murder and other most serious crimes.”

Virgin Unite, drug policy, Global Commission on Drug Policy

The way we address drug dependency is crucial. Our current prejudices mean that we’re not giving the appropriate care to those who may need it.

“In the US in 2014, only 18 per cent of the 22.5 million people requiring treatment for drugs (alcohol included) were receiving it, compared to 77 per cent for hypertension, 73 per cent for diabetes, 71 per cent for major depression.”

Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and new member of the Global Commission, spoke at the report’s launch. She questioned why drugs are one of the last issues to be grasped in terms of health, “People are dying due to drug policy and something needs to be done”, said the former Prime Minister, “and human faces can change the debate”.

This sentiment was backed up by Michel Kazatchkine, former Executive Director for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, who has heard a great deal of myths around health issues; primarily enforced due to politicised environments . Nick Clegg, the UK’s former Deputy Prime Minister, also pointed out that we need participation from the media and policy makers if we’re to have an open and honest conversation around drug law reform, for the sake of public health.

Virgin Unite, drug policy, Global Commission on Drug Policy

It’s increasingly clear that we don’t have the right on drug harms, which is preventing us from having a conversation based on health and evidence. So what can we do?

The World Drug Perception Problem recommends that opinion-formers and world leaders take responsibility in shaping public attitudes, making sure non-stigmatising language and policies are utilised. Crucially, there are ways in which we can all participate:

“Take part in the debate, sustain activism and advocacy, and keep governments, parliaments, the judiciary, mayors, media, healthcare and social professionals accountable.

“Ordinary citizens have the capacity to transform this debate. Activism must be sustained, to develop the ability of civil society to hold governments, the media and other stakeholders accountable.”


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