Current drug policies have been counter-productive, often causing more harm than the drugs themselves through capital punishment for offences, widespread incarceration, discrimination in law enforcement, violation of basic human rights in forced ‘treatment’ centres, and opportunity costs.
Drug policies differ from country to country but almost all are based on several UN conventions and documents, starting with the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. This was followed by the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Every one of these agreements received worldwide support, with most countries signing on and increasingly enforcing the punitive measures suggested in them. Over the decades these Conventions were enforced, it became increasingly clear they weren’t working. Unfortunately, it had little effect. The most recent UN Convention, signed in 1988, declared “a drug free world by 2008, we can do it!”. Only one country in the world has so far gone back on the agreements made in the UN conventions relating to drugs and decriminalised the personal use of all drugs. Other countries have decriminalised or legalised the use of some drugs, while others have increased penalties for drug offenses.
The criminalisation of some drugs on a global scale began prior to the UN Conventions. The late 1800’s and early 1900’s were the heyday of international reforms and drug laws. The political reasons for pushing the criminalisation of particular drugs such as heroin, cocaine and marijuana were often related to trade between nations, couched in racist terms. Opium was considered a “Chinese” drug, while marijuana was often thought to be the choice of drug for black Americans, and cocaine the “scourge” of the Hispanic American population. The United States was heavily involved in promoting the world to adopt the policies its own country was beginning to adopt. All of a sudden, substances that had been sold over the counter in cough drops for children were being branded as “evil”.
We can pretty safely say the ‘War on Drugs’, a term coined by US President Richard Nixon in 1971, has been the predominant political response to drugs and PUD in the world since then. The ideas enshrined in the ‘War on Drugs’, that drugs are “public enemy number one”, that illicit drug use is bad and that it can be eradicated with enough effort, namely law enforcement and military interventions, has not just affected the US, it is also pushed by the US in various ways. Countries that express a different view and an interest in changing their drug policies to include things like decriminalising or legalising currently illicit drugs, find themselves being pressured, forced and even threatened. US forces in Afghanistan spent a lot of money and effort destroying opium poppy crops when they occupied the country in the early 21st century. Over the last few decades, the US government has also pressured many South American countries to implement policies that reduce the production and trafficking of illicit drugs through threats to trade deals. In other cases, the US military has used aerial fumigation on illicit drug crops in South American countries, mostly marijuana and cocaine, without the permission of the country. Evaluations of these kinds of methods have shown “their efficacy to be very low, if not zero” by a number of reports. They have also had serious negative effects on the people around, including depriving Afghan farmers and their families of their only source of income and the creation of skin disorders and miscarriages in pregnant women in the South American people living near the fumigation sites. These methods would probably be considered an act of war if it was being done to the US by someone else.
The reliance on law enforcement to respond to drugs has had a huge effect on the world. Since the war on drugs began in earnest, the amount of drugs produced every year has increased significantly, as has the number of people using them. In contrast, the average price of drugs has decreased and the purity of them has increased. When a huge effort is put into stopping the manufacturing of drugs in one place, drug manufacturing increases somewhere else. Supply reduction measures in Iran, Pakistan and Turkey were quite successful, but were immediately followed by a huge increase in opium production in Afghanistan. The same thing happened when China drastically cracked down on opium growing in the mid-20th Century. It moved to Thailand, and when Thailand cracked down on it fifty years later, it moved to Myanmar.
The changes in both areas where drugs are produced, and changes in trafficking routes, have had significantly dangerous effects in those areas. Crackdowns by local and international law enforcement have increased political and economic instability in many countries. The farmers who tend to grow illicit crops are often the most affected by poverty, and their crops are frequently destroyed with little or no recourse, while they profit only a little from a successful crop. The networks controlling the drugs have enough profit to change their markets and strategies whenever they need to. Cocaine is no longer being supplied from South American countries to the US in large boats, but in smaller boats and submarines that slip through the radar.
Where drugs are produced and trafficked, more people use them. Blood borne virus transmissions including HIV have been shown to follow trafficking routes along with increases to the numbers of people using drugs as the trafficking routes move into a new area. When the customs and police stop drugs from being trafficked through an area, the people who lived along that route may be forced to move to access a drug they had become dependent on having, resulting in increased vulnerability, family breakdowns and poverty for many of the people affected by the changes.
Several studies have shown that punitive laws including long prison sentences and even the death penalty have little effect on reducing the supply and use of illicit drugs.
Supply reduction methods such as policing, imprisonment, border controls and crop eradication are extremely expensive. The US alone is estimated to spend approximately $51 billion US per year on the ‘War on Drugs’. Globally, it is conservatively estimated that $100 billion US is spent on drug enforcement. These include what are known as demand reduction strategies, such as evidence based drug treatment, and harm reduction. Although it seems counter-intuitive to many, supplying people who inject drugs with new injecting equipment is more effective at reducing drug use than locking them up in prison. It also allows people to protect themselves from blood borne virus transmission and other drug related harms at the same time as increasing their knowledge of and access to support and health services. One tenth of the current budget for global drug enforcement would provide almost or all of what is needed to provide HIV and hepatitis C treatment for every injecting drug user who needs it, twice, and have money left for naloxone, NSP and other necessary health programs for people who use drugs according to estimates from Harm Reduction International. Harm reduction and demand reduction strategies have also been shown to have the added benefit of saving the state money in reports from both higher and middle income countries.
While most of the world continues to approach drugs with punitive responses, supplying vastly more money to supply reduction strategies like poisoning and flattening opium and coca crops, it is encouraging to note the changing rhetoric around drug policy in the last few years. It is no longer just drug user organisations and a minority of other “crazies” who openly advocate for drug law reform. Many people, including leaders of some countries, and many organisations are beginning to promote changes in drug policy, and some countries are making some of these changes.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy was formed by a group of world leaders who believed in the need to respond to the failure of the ‘War on Drugs’. The Chair of the Commission stated, when releasing a report on ways punitive laws and policies could be changed, “we are driven by a sense of urgency. There is a widespread acknowledgement that the current system is not working, but also recognition that change is both necessary and achievable.” The Commission has in its membership several former heads of state from around the world, as well as business leaders, high level UN and governmental leaders, and experts in HIV and related issues.
Current political parties in many countries, particularly in South America, have also begun to talk about decriminalisation and legalisation of particular drugs in particular contexts. The decriminalisation of possession and use of marijuana and cocaine is in the process of being implemented in some of these countries. In December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to approve a national legal framework for the “cultivation, trade and consumption of cannabis for medical, industrial as well as recreational purposes”. Even the US, the country many would consider to be most responsible for the world’s punitive approach to drugs, has states where marijuana has been legalised or decriminalised for medical and personal use.
However, at time of writing (September 2014), only Portugal has had the courage to decriminalise the use of all drugs. In the late 20th Century, Portugal had one of the highest rates of HIV among its population of injecting drug users in Europe. In 2001, Portugal decided to try something radically different and decriminalise the personal use of all drugs. It was the first country since the criminalisation of drugs such as heroin and cocaine was introduced to do this, and more than thirteen years later it remains the only country. Since Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs, the rates of HIV among drug users have decreased significantly, as has the incarceration of people for drug offenses. Moreover, the number of people reporting drug use in the previous year, and the number of young people reporting drug use in the previous year have also decreased. Many more people have been referred for drug treatment. Although the system may not be a perfect one, and there continues to be people, including political parties, who would prefer to go back to the old system, the Portuguese model has been widely recognised as a success, having achieved its objectives as well as having unexpected benefits.
With more and more people from both within the drug using community and outside it challenging the stigmatising stereotypes and the need for ineffective, expensive punitive laws, the world may be changing its focus on drugs. As we continue to speak out, we may live to see the day where drug users are not only considered equals, we may not be really considered ‘drug users’ at all! We might just be like anyone else who has a preference for a substance, without the need to be defined by it.