Pubdate: Sat, 26 Mar 2016
Source: Herald On Sunday (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2016 New Zealand Herald
Author: Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post - Bloomberg


Group says war on drugs has failed and suggests decriminalisation the 
first step to solving problems

A group of 22 medical experts convened by Johns Hopkins University 
and The Lancet have called this week for the decriminalisation of all 
non- violent drug use and possession.

Citing a growing scientific consensus on the failures of the global 
war on drugs, the experts further encourage countries and US states 
to "move gradually toward regulated drug markets and apply the 
scientific method to their assessment".

Their report comes ahead of a special United Nations General Assembly 
Session on drugs to be held next month, where the world's countries 
will re-evaluate the past half-century of drug policy and, in the 
hope of many experts, chart a more public health-centred approach in future.

In a lengthy review of the state of global drug policy, the 
HopkinsLancet experts conclude that the prohibitionist anti-drug 
policies of the past 50 years "directly and indirectly contribute to 
lethal violence, disease, discrimination, forced displacement, 
injustice and the undermining of people's right to health". They 
cite, among other things:

A "striking increase" in homicide in Mexico since the Government 
decided to militarise its response to the drug trade in 2006. The 
increase has been so great that experts have had to revise life 
expectancy downward in that country.

The "excessive use" of incarceration as a drug control measure, which 
the experts identify as the "biggest contribution" to higher rates of 
HIV and Hepatitis C infection among drug users.

Stark racial disparities in drug law enforcement, particularly in the 
United States.

And human rights violations arising from excessively punitive drug 
control measures, including an increase in the torture and abuse of 
drug prisoners in places like Mexico.

"The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production and 
trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national 
drug laws, but these policies are based on ideas about drug use and 
drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded," said 
Commissioner Chris Beyrer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of 
Public Health.

For instance, the last time the UN held a special session on drugs, 
in 1998, it set itself the goal of a "drugfree world" by 2008. The 
Hopkins-Lancet commissioners also fault UN drug regulators for 
failing to distinguish between drug use and drug abuse. "The idea 
that all drug use is dangerous and evil has led to enforcement-heavy 
policies and has made it difficult to see potentially dangerous drugs 
in the same light as potentially dangerous foods, tobacco and 
alcohol, for which the goal of social policy is to reduce potential 
harms," they write.

The commissioners cite research showing that "of an estimated 246 
million people who used an illicit drug in the past year, 27 million 
( around 11 per cent) experienced problem drug use, which was defined 
as drug dependence or drug-use disorders".

"The idea that all drug use is necessarily ' abuse' means that 
immediate and complete abstinence has been seen as the only 
acceptable approach," commissioner Adeeba Kamarulzaman, a professor 
at the University of Malaya, said. But "continued criminalisation of 
drug use fuels HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis transmission within 
prisons and the community at large. There is another way. Programmes 
and policies aimed at reducing harm should be central to future drug policies."

The commissioners point to successes in drug decriminalisation 
experiments in places like Portugal, where drug use rates have 
fallen, overdose deaths are rare and new HIV infections among drug 
users have plummeted. They recommend that other countries adopt a 
similar approach.

And beyond decriminalisation, the commissioners recommend 
experimenting with the full legalisation and regulation of certain 
types of drug use, as several US states have done with marijuana.

"Although regulated legal drug markets are not politically possible 
in the short term in some places, the harms of criminal markets and 
other consequences of prohibition catalogued in this commission will 
probably lead more countries ( and more US states) to move gradually 
in that direction - a direction we endorse," they write.

Other countries, particularly in Latin America, are already looking 
towards US marijuana legalisation experiments as a blueprint for how 
they might move away from overly punitive drug laws. But one 
challenge towards adopting a less stringent drug policy has always 
been the massive UN drug control treaties, which are now decades old 
and which experts say reflect outdated and even harmful ways of 
thinking about drug use.

Reformers are hoping that the upcoming General Assembly Special 
Session on drugs will mark a turning point in the drug war. But 
getting nearly 200 countries to agree on any change in direction will 
be a challenge. And early indications appear to be that negotiators 
are setting their sights low.

A draft document of the resolution to be discussed at the special 
session reaffirms the UN's "commitment to the goals and objectives of 
the three international drug control conventions" - the same 
conventions criticised in the Hopkins- Lancet report.

And it calls on countries to "actively promote a society free of drug 
abuse", echoing the language of the failed drug control goals of the 1990s.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom