Pubdate: Fri, 01 Apr 2016
Source: Guardian Weekly, The (UK)
Copyright: Guardian Publications 2016
Authors: Sarah Boseley and Jessica Glenza


Experts Urge Reversal of Policies That Have Driven Violence and Deaths

An international commission of medical experts is calling for global 
drug decriminalisation, arguing that current policies lead to 
violence, deaths and the spread of disease, harming health and human rights.

The commission, set up by the Lancet medical journal and Johns 
Hopkins University in the US, finds that tough drugs laws have caused 
misery, failed to curb drug use, fuelled violent crime and spread the 
epidemics of HIV and hepatitis C through unsafe injecting. Publishing 
its report on the eve of a special session of the United Nations 
devoted to illegal narcotics, it urges a reversal of the repressive 
policies imposed by most governments.

"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," says Dr Chris 
Beyrer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a 
member of the commission. "The global 'war on drugs' has harmed 
public health, human rights and development. It's time for us to 
rethink our approach .. and put scientific evidence and public health 
at the heart of drug policy discussions."

The commission calls on the UN to back decriminalisation of minor, 
nonviolent drug offences involving the use, possession and sale of 
small quantities. Military force against drug networks should be 
phased out, it says, and policing should be better targeted on the 
most violent armed criminals.

Among the report's other recommendations are:

Minimise prison sentences for women involved in non-violent crimes 
who are often exploited as drug "mules".

Move gradually towards legal, regulated drug markets, which are "not 
politically possible in the short term in some places" although they 
predict more countries and US states will move that way, "a direction 
we endorse".

Ensure easy access to clean needles, oral drugs such as methadone to 
reduce injecting and naloxene, the antidote to overdoses.

Stop aerial spraying of drug crops with toxic pesticides. The 
commission comprises doctors, scientists and health and human rights 
experts from around the world. It is jointly chaired by Prof Adeeba 
Kamarulzaman from the University of Malaya and Prof Michel 
Kazatchkine, the UN special envoy for HIV/Aids in eastern Europe and 
central Asia.

Its report says scientific evidence on repressive drug policies is 
wanting. The last UN special session on drug use was in 1998. It 
backed a total clampdown, urging governments to eliminate drugs 
through bans on use, possession, production and trafficking.

The commission says that has not worked, and the casualties of that 
approach have been huge. The decision of the Calderon government in 
Mexico in 2006 to use the military in civilian areas to fight drug 
traffickers "ushered in an epidemic of violence in many parts of the 
country that also spilled into Central America", says the report.

Prohibitionist drug policies have had serious adverse consequences in 
the US, too. "The US is perhaps the best documented but not the only 
country with clear racial biases in policing, arrests and 
sentencing," the commissioners write.

The commission cites examples of countries and US states that have 
moved down the decriminalisation road. "Countries such as Portugal 
and the Czech Republic decriminalised minor drug offences years ago, 
with significant financial savings, less incarceration, significant 
public health benefits, and no significant increase in drug use," 
says the report.


Drugs laws from around the world

UK In 1964, the first of several laws that would make it a criminal 
offence for individuals to possess drugs was introduced. By some 
estimates, the UK now has the highest level of dependent drug use in Europe.

Australia In the 1980s, Australia was one of the first countries to 
enact the policy of "harm minimisation", which involves reducing 
supplies, education policies, and minimising harm through initiatives 
such as needle programmes. Despite this, a major study warned in 2013 
that it had "one of the world's most serious drug problems".

Portugal The country changed its drug laws in 2001, making possession 
for personal use an administrative rather than a criminal offence 
punished by fines and community service

rather than jail time. The policy is widely regarded as successful 
with decreased rate of HIV infections among drug users, a dramatic 
increase in addicts seeking treatment, and no increase in drug use.

Canada Became the first country to legalise cannabis use by 
terminally ill patients in 2001. There have been strong campaigns 
around the country to legalise cannabis. The newly elected Liberal 
prime minister, Justin Trudeau, ran on a drug platform that promised 
to "legalise, regulate and restrict access to marijuana".

Peru One of the world's largest producers of coca leaf, Peru 
traditionally adopted policies of prohibition and punishment. Changes 
to the criminal code in 2003 have relaxed this policy, making 
possession in small quantities for some drugs "not punishable". Kate Lyons
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom