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A Chance to Get Drug Policy Right

Man against a chain-link fence

What do drug experts in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the United States have in common? They all recognize that the war on drugs has failed, and that it’s time for a change.

It’s been 17 years since world leaders assembled at the 1998 special session of the United Nations to discuss the global drug problem. The slogan of that meeting was, “A Drug-Free World: We Can Do It.” But they couldn’t do it. The effort to eliminate all drug production and impose a zero-tolerance approach to drug use didn’t work. In fact, these efforts have done more harm than good the world over. 

In April 2016, the world will gather at the UN once again to revisit the problem. This time, the secretary-general and the nations of the world must listen to voices of experience: those from the streets of Rio to the parliaments of Europe, from West Africa to New York, who are looking at the impacts of drug policy and calling for a rethink. Here are some key points of consensus:

  1. The moment is now for drug policy reform.

    At the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in April, member states will convene to debate current drug policies. But you don’t have to be there to make your voice heard. The global Stop the Harm movement is mobilizing people all over the world to bring an end to the catastrophic failures of the current drug policy regime. In the words of Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland and a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, we’re shifting from an “ideological and moralistic point of view to a pragmatic, but also a humane, human rights–respecting perspective.”

  2. Damage caused by the drug war is evident across the world.

    From Latin America and Asia to Africa and the United States, trillions of dollars have been wasted and millions of lives damaged or lost to the drug war over the past 50 years. As Isidore Obot, professor and chairperson of the department of psychology at the University of Uyo in Nigeria says, “The drug policies in African countries … are like war policies,” with soldiers and law enforcement officials carrying out prohibitionist practices that tear communities apart. All over the world, prison systems are overburdened, public health deteriorates, violence proliferates, and human rights violations abound.

  3. There are better approaches than abstinence-only to address drug use and possession.

    Zero tolerance has been of zero use to most people who use drugs. Better ways exist, as exemplified by the system used by Portugal, which in 2001 decriminalized possession of up to 10 days’ worth of drugs. “It turns out, now that the evaluations have come out after over a decade, illicit drug use did not go up,” says Ethan Nadelman, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

  4. There are better ways to address drug growing and dealing.

    Some of the most marginalized populations—such as poor farmers and low-level drug dealers—bear the brunt of current policies, including aerial eradication and disproportionate jail sentencing. Countries like Bolivia have introduced a community control model that not only reduced coca cultivation but also decreased violence and stabilized and diversified local economies. “If we spent the equivalent trillion dollars that we spent on the drug war on social development issues, the drug problem would probably take care of itself with some moderate regulatory framework,” says Donald MacPherson, director of the Canada Drug Policy Coalition.

UN member states must commit to incorporating human rights, public health, sustainable development, and harm reduction principles firmly in their drug policies. The message from people who best know the impacts of the failed war on drugs is clear: we can replace bad prohibitionist policy with more sensible regulation of drugs and better health policies. Now we need the secretary general of the United Nations, and the governments who gather there this April, to take up that call.

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