Growing movement to end the war on drugs

An Afghan security force member destroys an illegal poppy crop in the Noor Gal district of Kunar province last year. Picture: Getty

A global group of leaders wants to end what it says is a failed policy and instead focus on legalising use and putting people’s health first, writes Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill

IT IS time to abandon the idea of a “drug free world”, according to a team of world political and business leaders.

Half a century of trying to rid the world of illegal drugs has simply built massive criminal empires, killed millions of people, wasted billions of government euro and increased the problems, the group states.

Next year, the United Nations will reflect on its drug policies — and now is the time to change them, says the Global Commission on Drug Policy —composed of business leader Richard Branson, former UN head Kofi Annan, former presidents of nine countries, and a raft of human rights, legal, and health specialists.

“It is time to recognise the harms caused by the illusion of the global goal of a drug-free world which would be achieved through prohibition and repression,” said Michel Kazatchkine, the UN secretary-generals’ special envoy on HIV/Aids.

He has been counting the cost of the current drugs policy in Aids victims.

The only way to go is to legalise drug use, and for the state to assume control, he and the commission say governments need to put people’s health first with policies designed to minimise and reduce the harm caused by drugs, such as making them available in controlled ways, and to regulate drug markets in the same way that alcohol and tobacco are.

Some countries have been moving in this direction with excellent results. But still others insist on tough penalties and continuing the war on drugs, despite the facts — and they’re frightening:

- The wholesale drugs market is worth more than the entire global market for cereals, wine, beer, coffee, and tobacco combined.

- Markup is massive — production worth €11.5bn; wholesale worth €83bn, and customer sales €290bn, in 2005.

- Fighting wars — €440m a year for those fighting along the Pakistan- Afghanistan border.

- Between 2008 and 2013, users worldwide increased by 18%, to 243m — one in every 20 people.

- Illegal opium production has increased from 1,000 metric tons to more than 4,000 since 1980.

- Heroin prices have fallen 75% since 1990, even as purity increased.

- The drug control system is unable to cope with the new psychoactive substances being produced daily.

- Money has been diverted from health care and crime fighting.

- HIV and other infections increased.

This brief list, said former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss, has come from her body’s attempt to analyse the result of the current drug policy. “It’s time to break the taboo and consider the reality.”

Thirty years ago, the Swiss saw that their parks were full of needles and drug takers, “deconstructed human beings with no support or motivation for change, undermining societies and cities”.

They voted for Europe’s first experiment putting public health first and gradually, convinced by pilot projects that could show good results, agreed to programmes providing free needles, opiate substitution treatment, heroin-assisted treatment programmes and supervised drug consumption facilities.

The most dramatic change was with heroin users, with almost all now in some kind of programme. “People just being drop-outs from society is no longer a feature,” Ms Dreifuss said.

But, she said, changing a policy means reaching a mutual understanding between all those involved, and listening to people who are directly concerned. “This is a European, democratic, politically well-rooted process — like the velvet revolution in Czech, or carnation revolution in Portugal.”

Pavel Bém, who is seen as a drugs tsar in the Czech Republic, in his time as mayor of Prague revolutionised the approach to drugs, despite politicians and the public being opposed at first.

“In the early 1990s, only the media favoured a pragmatic and cost-effective approach — without that support we would never have been able to do it.”

But every time a new government was elected, the issue came up again with calls for a clampdown, more rigid control and tougher penalties — and in 1998, the laws were reversed. At the same time, Portugal did the opposite and started decriminalising drug use.

Pavel and his team collected the evidence of the consequence of this change, and after two and a half years, proved that the hard new drug law did not bring any positive change, and instead cost the state a lot. Two years later, the laws were reversed.

“We have a sustainable drug policy, with decreasing Hepatitis C and HIV cases, a drop in overdoses, lower deaths, and now even cannabis use by students which was on the increase for many years has started to stabilise and show a slow decline.

"The population of drug users — which poses the greatest public health risk — has stabilised at around 45,000 users. Our main problem is a shortage of funds.”

Police are happy not having to lock up people for minor drug offences, but even so, 75% of resources are spent on enforcement despite the country having decriminalised drug use.

Following meetings with the European Commission and members of the European Parliament, the global commission believes that they may be willing to adopt change.

“Sweden is still dreaming of a society without drugs, while Portugal is on the other side. It is difficult to find consensus. Some are afraid of taking some of the steps necessary but they are also aware that drugs are much more available than in a regulated market,” said Ms Dreifuss.

The EU has much more say in the area of justice and crime than in health — where many of the arguments for a change in policy lies. And now also, Ms Dreifuss said, is a time of peace — there is not big push for change and so countries are not that interested.

There are recent examples of a reversal in an enlightened approach, such as in Crimea, where the Russian occupiers considered the methadone and syringe exchange programmes to be illegal and stopped them. Within a short time, 10% — 800 — of the addicts who were stabilised with methadone died either from substances bought on the black market or suicide.

The global commission wants the EU to take the lead in convincing countries of the need for a new global drug strategy during the United Nations General Assembly special session next year on the world drug problem.


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