This year marks the 100th anniversary of global drug prohibition, and what an inglorious centenary it is when we consider the millions of lives that have been blighted as a consequence of the war on drugs. And yet the majority of governments have supported a worldwide ban on the cultivation, distribution and use of psychoactive substances ever since the signing of the Shanghai convention, which aimed to target opium use, in 1909.
Next week, political leaders gather in Vienna to contemplate the state of international drug policy and sign up to new accords. It is a decade on from the last UN General Assembly special session (UNGASS) on narcotics in New York, which took as its ridiculously gauche slogan “A drug-free world – we can do it”. The reality of the past 10 years – from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to Manchester street stabbings – could not have been more different.
UNGASS is accused by some of being little more than a talking shop – its recommendations are, after all, non-binding. But this meeting is a crucial barometer and, for better or worse, will codify the consensus around global drug policy for the next decade. As the International Drug Policy consortium notes in a recent briefing, it’s hard to overestimate the devastation caused to individuals and societies across the world by this strict prohibitionist stance.
Excluding Africa, one in three HIV infections results from the use of contaminated injecting equipment. But, while countless studies have concluded that provision of sterile equipment reduces needle-sharing but does not promote drug use, in many countries drug control continues to trump public health. In Russia, which has the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world, users don’t even have the option of weaning themselves off illegal drugs using a substitute such as methadone, because it is itself illegal.
Despite a global trend towards the abolition of capital punishment, the number of regimes applying the death penalty to drug offences is increasing, in contravention of international human rights law. More broadly, punishing drug users doesn’t work; it costs the taxpayer billions and keeps prisons dangerously overcrowded. Mike Trace, the former deputy UK drugs tsar, says successive studies show minimal correlation between the severity of law enforcement and demand for illegal drugs. Some of the toughest countries, such as the US, still have the highest rates of use.
Then there are the devastating environmental effects of coca crop-spraying in Colombia. Or the forced detoxification of thousands of users in China. Or the fact that the illegal drugs market gifts millions to organised criminals and paramilitaries who destabilise entire countries. These are the consequences of prohibition, and a “drug-free world” has not been one of them.
Until recently there had been strong indications that the Vienna talks would consider a more pragmatic and compassionate approach. EU countries, backed by some Latin American states, Australia and New Zealand, have been lobbying for the new declaration to explicitly mention harm reduction for the first time. But such optimism has evaporated, as the EU line founders, with the Vatican issuing a statement that harm reduction leads to the liberalisation of drug use and so is “anti-life”, while the US, Japan and Russia continue to veto anything other than zero tolerance.
Although the Obama administration has indicated a more progressive attitude than the Bush-led war on drugs – the president has already lifted the ban on federal funding for needle exchanges – it’s unlikely that this new approach will filter through to the US negotiators in Vienna, which risks sealing the fate of global drug policy for another decade.
Harm reduction – needle exchanges, prescription of substitute drugs and management of addiction – is no panacea, of course, but in individual countries where such interventions are long-established, they have saved many lives. The tragedy is that a consensus already exists among experts in drug policy, as well as among many senior politicians and police, but is only acknowledged in private. And that consensus is that the illegality of drugs causes more harm than good, and that the sanest response would be a system of regulation and taxation, bringing drugs into line with the other harmful choices that people make, like smoking and drinking.
As Danny Kushlick, of the drugs reform charity Transform, says: “No amount of counselling, clean needles or methadone makes up for the fact that [a user’s]drugs cost more than their equivalent weight in gold, that they are of unknown purity and that their possession is a criminal offence. And sadly, safe injecting rooms and heroin prescribing will not help the plight of Afghan and Colombian opium and coca growers.”
But legalisation and regulation is not a debate that will be going public in Vienna, nor anytime soon in Britain, given the way the government has ignored its advisory committee on the misuse of drugs in the last two reclassification exercises. Those who have seen the consequences of prohibition at first hand are still praying for a miracle in Vienna. And the rest of us will have to take slim comfort where we can get it. Like the story about a home affairs select committee session in 2001, during which one eager young backbencher was surprisingly vocal about the need for a mature discussion about legalisation. That MP was David Cameron. Now that really would be a turn-up. Though I won’t be holding my breath.
– Article from The Guardian on March 5, 2009