Pubdate: Thu, 21 Apr 2016
Source: Pretoria News, The (South Africa)
Copyright: 2016 The Pretoria News
Note: The Independent


A More Nuanced Stand Needed

AS THE last century drew to a close, and the West continued to 
congratulate itself on reaching the "End of History" and the sunny 
triumph of liberal democracy, the UN announced a bold ambition: to 
secure a "drug-free world". With communism having been overcome, the 
cycle of economic boom and bust seemingly broken, declaring war on an 
illegal, global trade must have felt to some like the next step 
towards social nirvana.

Eighteen years later the world feels like a very different place on 
many counts.

As for the much-vaunted war on drugs, few can doubt it has been 
roundly lost. An estimated $100bn (R1.4 trillion) a year is spent on 
anti-drug law enforcement activities and yet the trade in illegal 
narcotics only continues to grow - it is thought to be worth up to 
$500bn annually. The criminal gangs that increasingly dominate the 
global drugs scene are prepared to do whatever it takes to maintain 
the upper hand.

With this in mind, the UN General Assembly meets this week in special 
session in New York to reconsider the treaties which have steered the 
hardline strategies of national policymakers.

It is a crucial moment, although debates are likely to be heated. For 
all the evidence against maintaining the status quo, some countries - 
notably Russia and China - still regard drugs as primarily a law 
enforcement issue. Those who would recast the issue as a matter of 
public health, or perhaps reframe it both on an individual and 
societal level within the context of "reducing harm", face a battle 
of their own.

It is clear that there are already cracks in the charade of global 
drug-fighting unity.

The US, for so long the bastion of prohibitionism when it comes to 
narcotics, has nudged to the forefront of cannabis legalisation.

Medicinal use is permitted in 23 states; four of those allow 
recreational use too. Just over 50 percent of Americans support 
decriminalisation of marijuana. Polls in the UK have found a similar 
proportion of the public here share that view. In Canada, Prime 
Minister Justin Trudeau won an election having pledged to legalise cannabis.

Attitudes towards more potent drugs may be less tolerant but there is 
a growing recognition that approaches towards serious addictions to 
substances, including heroin, have misfired.

Several countries already operate drug consumption rooms, where 
serious addicts can obtain and take heroin in a safe environment 
without fear of arrest.

This reduces health problems associated with the use of dirty needles 
and obviates the need for addicts to engage in criminality so they 
can pay for their hits.

It is not just in developed nations that the facts on the ground are 
prompting a rethink. In Central and South America, governments have 
expended vast resources in a bloody and futile fight against the drug cartels.

In Mexico alone, there were 165 000 documented homicides in the seven 
years to 2014  many of them (over half by some estimates) related to 
the drugs trade in one way or another.

This week's meeting of the UN General Assembly was prompted as much 
by despairing pleas from Latin American governments as by the desire 
of Western liberals to smoke pot in peace.

Nobody would claim that the drugs issue is straightforward. Many 
illegal substances cause horrible damage to users' health and the 
idea that the world should take anything other than a zero tolerance 
approach to narcotics will horrify some.

But we need to have a more sensible debate: complex problems are not 
resolved by the use of blunt instruments and the UN would do well to 
adopt a more nuanced position. The dogmatic notion that a drug-free 
world is achievable ought to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom