Pubdate: Mon, 07 Jul 2014
Source: Las Vegas Sun (NV)
Copyright: 2014 Las Vegas Sun, Inc
Author: Erin Ryan
Note: This column first appeared on June 26.
Page: 1

National Policy


War has been declared on the "war on drugs." Not by violent cartels, 
but by economists, public health workers, human rights advocates and 
others who believe that punitive, blanket prohibition is not only 
failing but has done enormous harm. Thousands took to the streets of 
more than 100 cities across the globe June 26, "reclaiming" the 
United Nations' International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit 
Trafficking by protesting the fallout of the drug war, from health 
crises to mass incarceration.

"According to estimates, the drug war costs in excess of $100 billion 
annually to enforce and has failed to diminish drug markets or reduce 
use," states an advisory from the coalition behind the Support. Don't 
Punish campaign's Global Day of Action.

I was stunned when I read that. I hadn't seen the statistic that more 
than half of federal prison inmates in the U.S. are held on drug 
convictions and another showing that as the number increased from the 
1980s to today, so did the use of illicit drugs. I hadn't read about 
executions of drug offenders in Indonesia and China, or about 
orphaned children in poor communities where drugs are plentiful and 
related health services are not. I hadn't heard that delegations from 
Latin America, Europe and Africa called for policy reform at the 
U.N.'s session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March, or that 
alternative strategies to the status quo were put forward by five 
Nobel laureates and other experts at the London School of Economics in May.

Drug policy isn't a big part of my life because drugs aren't part of 
it. But my community, local and global, is deeply affected by the 
drug war, and I need a deeper understanding than the 1987 public 
service announcement in which a son tells his father, "I learned it 
by watching you."

That line was tattooed on my 8-year-old brain by the Partnership for 
a Drug-Free America. Along with the infamous frying pan spot, it 
scared the hell out of me, and that was the idea. I never even knew 
what was in the plastic bag that got the son in trouble.

Mystification of drugs is dangerous, says Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, 
director of the Global Drug Policy Program of the Open Society 
Foundations, which promotes human rights, education and social 
justice through grants and other initiatives (including working with 
members of the Support. Don't Punish coalition). "(People) will 
experiment, and the more reliable information they have the safer 
those experiments will be."

No one is arguing the devastating effects illicit substances can 
have, but current efforts to demystify and decriminalize cannabis 
have fueled a larger discussion about the demands of a world that is 
nowhere near drug-free.

"Decades of evidence conclusively show that the supply and demand for 
illicit drugs are not something that can be eradicated. They can be 
managed, either well or badly. They are currently being managed 
badly," states the London School of Economics report "Ending the Drug 
Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug 
Policy." Supported by the Open Society Foundations, the report 
asserts that despite more enforcement spending worldwide, drugs have 
gotten cheaper and more pure. The authors call for massive 
redirection of resources toward public health-based policies of harm 
reduction and treatment, insisting that the war on drugs "has failed 
based on its own terms."

"I think if we're open-minded and willing to accept that options 
other than prohibition should be under discussion, then we will learn 
something from it. But as things stand, prohibition is sold as the 
only option, and that dramatically limits how effective we can be," 
says Malinowska-Sempruch, who has helped formulate policy at the 
Global Fund and the World Health Organization and coauthored her 
native Poland's first national AIDS program.

Addiction wasn't as well understood in 1961, when the U.N. Single 
Convention on Narcotic Drugs - the foundation of coordinated global 
drug policy - was established. Malinowska-Sempruch hopes Support. 
Don't Punish will send the message that the system should reflect 
what we've learned and adjust where it's ineffective or 
counterproductive. Here in the U.S., the social and economic costs 
are motivators for the decriminalization and even regulation of 
cannabis, though the Office of National Drug Control Policy "rejects 
the false choice between an enforcement-centric 'war on drugs' and 
drug legalization."

Malinowska-Sempruch also sees the false dichotomy. For her, opposing 
the drug war is not about championing a free-for-all. It's about 
bringing control policy that's a generation old into this century, 
tailoring it to the cultural realities of different countries and 
ensuring that it does no harm.

"There really are people across the globe who are wondering whether 
their national policies are the wisest. And I think there is now this 
really significant and impressive willingness to learn from each 
other," Malinowska-Sempruch says. Maybe that means taking the 
conversation about drugs out of the frying pan, or at least telling 
kids what's in that plastic bag.
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