Why Our Drug Policy is ‘Inconsistent’ With all Available Evidence

It’s safe to assume most people have never heard of the “Vienna Declaration.” And that simple fact helps explain why public policies that fail – policies that do vastly more harm than good – can live on despite overwhelming evidence of their failure.


The Vienna Declaration, published in the medical journal The Lancet, is an official statement of the 18th International AIDS Conference, which wraps up today in Vienna. Drafted by an international team of public health experts, including Evan Wood of the University of British Columbia, the Vienna Declaration seeks to “improve community health and safety” by, in the words of the committee, “calling for the incorporation of scientific evidence into illicit drug policies.”

Please don’t stop reading. I promise this will not turn into another of my rants about the catastrophic failure of drug prohibition. I’ve been writing variations on that theme for more than a decade now and everyone knows I am a crazed extremist whose views are not to be trusted by decent folk. I’ll spare you.

Instead, I will merely present a few sentences from the Vienna Declaration:

– “The criminalization of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelming health and social consequences.”

– “There is no evidence that increasing the ferocity of law enforcement meaningfully reduces the prevalence of drug use.”

– “The evidence that law enforcement has failed to prevent the availability of illegal drugs, in communities where there is demand, is now unambiguous. Over the last several decades, (there has been) a general pattern of falling drug prices and increasing drug purity — despite massive investments in drug law enforcement.”

– (Existing policies have produced) “a massive illicit market. … These profits remain entirely outside the control of government. They fuel crime, violence and corruption in countless urban communities and have destabilized entire countries, such as Colombia, Mexico, and Afghanistan.”

– “Billions of tax dollars (have been) wasted on a ‘war on drugs’ approach ….”

– Governments should “undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies.”

– “A full policy reorientation is needed.”

Remarkable, isn’t it? It’s exactly what this crazed extremist has been saying for more than a decade and yet the people who wrote and signed it are anything but crazed extremists. Among them is a long list of esteemed public health experts, including the president of the International AIDS Society, the executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and Canada’s own Dr. James Orbinski. There are former presidents of Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia. And there are several Nobel laureates, including the economist Vernon Smith. (See the full list of signatories, along with the statement, at viennadeclaration.com).

This should be big news. Drug policies affect everything from the local street corner to the war in Afghan-istan — and here is a long list of informed and eminent people who agree what we are currently doing is a horrifying mistake that wastes money and takes lives. The public should be alarmed.

But this is not big news. And the public is not alarmed. In fact, most of the public has never heard of the Vienna Declaration. Why not?

To answer that, let me take you way back to Sept. 5, 1989. That evening, U.S. president George H.W. Bush made a televised national address. Holding up a bag labelled “evidence,” Bush explained that this was crack seized at the park across the street from the White House. Crack is everywhere, he said. It’s an epidemic. Bush vowed “victory over drugs.”

The whole thing was a fraud. Federal agents had tried to find someone selling drugs in the park but couldn’t. Posing as customers, they called a drug dealer and asked him to come to the park. “Where the (expletive) is the White House?” the dealer said. So the police gave him directions.

This chicanery was exposed not long after but it didn’t matter. Bush’s address was a smash. The media bombarded the public with hysterical stories about the “crack epidemic.” Popular concern soared. And “all this occurred while nearly every index of drug use was dropping,” noted sociologists Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine.

The power to throw the switch on media coverage isn’t exclusive to the White House, of course. In 1998, the United Nations convened a General Assembly Special Session which brought leaders from all over the world to discuss illicit drugs. The media deluged the public with stories about drugs — and the UN’s official goal, signed at the end of the assembly by all member states, of “eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008.”

Time passed. The Special Assembly was forgotten. When 2008 rolled around, cocaine output had increased 20 per cent and opium production had doubled. But this spectacular failure was almost completely ignored in the media. Why? The UN stayed mum. So did national governments. With no major institutions putting the subject on the agenda, the media ignored it.

This is the essential problem: If governments talk about drugs, journalists talk about drugs; if they don’t, we don’t. And since governments are full of people whose budgets, salaries, and careers depend on the status quo, they talk about drugs when doing so is good for the status quo, but they are silent as mimes when it’s not. Thus the media become the unwitting propaganda arm of the status quo.

I’m not sure what it will take to change this. It would certainly help if the media would stop letting governments decide what is news and what is not. Even better would be leaders with the courage to put evidence ahead of cheap politics, entrenched thinking, and vested interests.

But that’s not happening. And so, on Monday, the government of Canada felt free to categorically reject the Vienna Declaration because it is “inconsistent” with its policies — policies which have never been subjected to evidence-based evaluation and would surely be condemned if they were.

This is how failure lives on.

– Article from The Ottawa Citizen.



  1. Anonymous on

    Sparkky is genius. Right. Bring sleeping bags. Don’t leave the 4/20 rally location. Within three days there will be a moratorium on arrests. Then the violence of incarceration and fines for innocent behaviour will stop.

  2. Sparkky McPuff on

    that a 4/20 rally did any good for our movement? it’s laughed at in the press for about a minute then totally forgotten about for 364 days.

    what we need is an enourmous candle light vigil, for all those who gave their lives, including street dealers and police, in the name Nixon’s “war on drugs”

    I don’t even get it. This nixon guy involved in the biggest scandal at the time, yet everybody still follows his advice when it comes to drugs. Don’t people get it? HE WAS A CROOK!

    Fuck everybody who is for the drug war.

    and your little dogs too.

    (for the candle light vigil: starting 4/20/11 after the 4/20. bring: blankets, pillows, buckets to pee in, and candles. Oh, and A bunch of joints too!) Seriously, Why leave the location of your 4/20 rally? Just stay there! I bet after a few days the whole world will know what is going on and they will start their vigils too! I’m not talking a celabratory rally or festival, I am talking about mourning those that perished or were wrongfully incarcerated because of this perpetual drug war that won’t EVER STOP unless WE stop it! Talking to politicians doesn’t work! The time for action is NOW! well I can wait another 9 months? Can you? I hope not because I can’t really either! Listen. It’s either a World wide peaceful vigil, or a nationwide march accross the country to capitol(think Labour strikes of the early 1920’s)! One or the other! But it needs to happen!

  3. Paul Goodman on

    The only way this idiocy is going to stop is if there is a major paradigm shift in policy by the U. N., a house-cleaning of retards from the world governments and more young liberal minded individuals getting involved in politics. It would also be nice to see more people of influence have the balls to admit their so-called “law-breaking” activities. I’m not influential bur I’ll start first. I’ve been smoking for 36 years, took LSD when I was about 17. I’m 51 now and would like to be able to smoke a joint without the paranoia that goes with it. Come and arrest me you bastards!