The Bitter Fruits of a Failed Ideology

The following article originally appeared in the European Voice. Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch is the director of the Open Society Institute Global Drug Policy Program.

Around the world, an invisible emergency is distressing the lives of millions of people. This emergency is putting thousands of nonviolent offenders behind bars, often to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatments amounting to torture. It is contributing to a massive expansion of HIV infection in several countries, most notably Russia. And it is damaging countries in regions as diverse as Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, in some cases leading to the collapse of the state.

This emergency also condemns millions every year to die in unbearable pain, because it prevents cancer patients from accessing cheap and effective painkillers.

The root cause of this disaster is not found in nature. It is man-made, springing from a failed ideology that continues, against overwhelming evidence, to dictate policy across the world.

The War and Its Effects

That ideology is the global "War on Drugs." Under its auspices, dozens of countries have pursued brutal policies that have consistently failed to deliver a reduction in drug use or production, but that have succeeded in causing suffering on a vast scale.

The War on Drugs is not a policy; it is not even a strategy. It shows all the hallmarks of an ideology. Overwhelming evidence of its ineffectiveness is brushed aside, and its proponents become shriller as its negative impacts become more obvious.

Next week, UN member states will convene in Vienna to assess progress made in the fight against drug use and to agree a strategy for the next decade. The current policy, agreed by the UN's General Assembly in 1998, is almost entirely constructed around the tenets of the War on Drugs.

In view of the evidence, that meeting should bury the failed approaches of the past and recommend policies that work. Alarmingly, that won't happen. A number of countries, including Russia, Japan, the United States, the Vatican, Italy, and Sweden insist on more of the same.

Yet alternatives do exist. They have proven themselves over decades, in places as varied as Malaysia or Switzerland. Countries that pursue strategies designed to reduce the harm done by drugs consistently show a drop in drug-related crime; are more successful at reintegrating drug users into society; show lower rates of HIV transmission among drug users; usually enjoy lower drug use rates among the general population; and suffer less disruption from criminal gangs.

Harm-reduction strategies—easily accessible supplies of clean needles, drug replacement therapy using methadone or buprenorphene, keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison etc.—are cheap, effective and easy to implement.

The principles of harm reduction work in drug producing countries too. The War on Drugs has destroyed communities in the Andes, the Hindu Kush and elsewhere. Aerial herbicide spraying destroys food plants and leads to serious health complications, especially amongst children. By removing a crucial source of income without compensation, it pushes farmers into the arms of insurgents. But in communities that implement real economic development, a gain in stability and rising prosperity is the rule. The incentive to grow illicit crops disappears.

This evidence is dismissed or ignored by the drug warriors, sometimes joined by the most surprising allies (the Vatican recently decided that harm reduction measures were “anti-life”). At the UN, they successfully pushed for more of the failed policies that have done so much harm.

The Worrying Auguries

The countries fighting to make sure the role of harm reduction is recognized and coercive measures minimized—most of the EU and parts of Latin America—were defeated at a preparatory meeting in Vienna this week. The draft declaration being negotiated does not mention harm reduction. Unless the political masters of the Vienna negotiators take urgent action, the world will be afflicted by disastrous policies for another decade at least.

The UN's new plan will, like its 1998 predecessor, be summarized in the slogan “A Drug-Free World—We Can Do It.” It will be used as an excuse by many states to continue with the cruel policies whose only output will continue to be the pointless suffering and death of millions.

This is a victory for the ideologues, and a defeat for the rest of humanity.

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