In 1998, the world leaders attending a UN General Assembly special session on global drug policies proclaimed, “A drug-free world — We can do it!” They vowed to rid the world of illegal narcotics by 2
In 1998, the world leaders attending a UN General Assembly special session on global drug policies proclaimed, “A drug-free world — We can do it!” They vowed to rid the world of illegal narcotics by 2008, employing the zero-tolerance approach begun in the 1960s, of harshly punishing everyone from trafficking kingpins to casual smokers of pot.
But last week, as their successors met in New York City for another special session on the issue, it was clear that this punitive approach had not only failed miserably but had led to unconscionable abuses.
“Globally, the ‘war on drugs’ has not succeeded,” said Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General who has served since 2011 on the blue-ribbon Global Commission on Drug Policy. In a bluntly worded commentary article, Mr Annan wrote that despite the $100 billion spent annually, “Prohibition has had little impact on the supply of or demand for drugs When law enforcement succeeds in one area, drug production simply moves to another region or country, drug trafficking moves to another route and drug users switch to a different drug. Nor has prohibition significantly reduced use. Studies have consistently failed to establish the existence of a link between the harshness of a country’s drug laws and its levels of drug use. The widespread criminalisation and punishment of people who use drugs, the over-crowded prisons, mean that the war on drugs is, to a significant degree, a war on drug users — a war on people.”
Tellingly, equally strong criticisms were voiced by other eminent figures as well as by numerous governments. An unlikely constellation of politicians, business leaders and activists — including former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Switzerland, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, and rock star Sting – released a public letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, saying, “The drug control regime that emerged during the last century has proven disastrous for global health, security and human rights.” The government of Colombia’s official submission likened the continued faith in the war-on-drugs approach to Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity — “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”.
The evidence of the harm done to millions by the war on drugs is incontestable. In the US, for decades the harshest drug-warrior, one in every five prisoners owes their incarceration to drug-related offences, generally minor in nature and selectively enforced against African-Americans. Executions for drug trafficking are commonplace in Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and two-dozen others — in 2015, at least 685 people around the world were executed on drug-related charges. In several Latin American countries, the battle between drug cartels and government forces has led to levels of killings, violence, torture and rape akin to countries at war.
In parallel, the war on drugs has had disastrous public health and environmental costs. Countless men and women who inject drugs have contracted HIV and Hepatitis C in the many nations, rich and poor alike, that prohibit essential “harm reduction” services, such as providing clean injection equipment, even though these have been hugely successful where used and have long been recommended by the World Health Organisation. In Colombia, herbicide aerial spraying to destroy coca — undertaken at dictatorial American pressure — has fuelled miscarriages and other health problems, destroyed food crops and caused lasting environmental damage. (The Colombian government’s recent decision to halt aerial spraying earned it the ire of the Obama administration.) It is no wonder that Mr Annan writes despairingly, “I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more.”
Given this evidence of harm as well as the failure to curb drug use, any sensible observer would have bet that affected governments — India’s included, faced with mounting drug use and a failed response — would have used the UN summit last week to junk the war on drugs and instead to embrace rational approaches. A persuasive alternative had been laid out by Mr Annan and the other eminent members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, based on the experience of countries that are finally showing success in tackling drug use and its toll.
The commission’s roadmap involves measures aimed at both use and supply. A first is to decriminalise personal drug use, so that the harm done by drugs is tackled by the public health system and social services, not by the police and jails. A second — so that drug supplies are no longer driven by the profit motive — is sensible, finely tuned legal regulation, for instance by legalising the sale of cannabis (already widely underway in Europe and the Americas, by creating government monopolies to counter black-market sales, and by ensuring that risky hard drugs are available only by medical prescription to people already registered as dependent users.
Third, to ensure that drugs cause the least possible harm to users, the commission recommends the expansion of both treatment services and “harm reduction” measures such as clean injecting equipment and supervised use. A final recommendation is to jettison the utopian goal of drug-free societies in favour of the reasonable one of achieving feasible reductions through higher taxes and public education campaigns, as commonly done with tobacco and alcohol (both drugs that, ironically, have been treated as legitimate despite being demonstrably physically addictive and more harmful than many banned substances).
But, so vast are the failures of global policy-making that none of what was expected came to pass: the UN special session ended with the war on drugs approach intact. None of what Mr Annan and reformist governments urgently asked for made it into the roadmap agreed last week: not the end of criminalisation, incarceration and executions, nor the expansion of harm reduction, treatment and legalised regulation. The upshot is that reformist countries will have to chart their own course, breaking with the existing global conventions on narcotics. All this desperately needed progress was subverted by the cussedness of hardline governments and officials at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime — an inept organisation dominated by drug-warriors Russia and the US. The world is left more dangerous and unfair as a consequence.
Siddharth Dube is the author of several non-fiction books, including No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex. He is also a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.