The ‘war on drugs’ is ineffective and violates human rights, say researchers and NGOs

A 130 per cent increase in poppy growing, more than 72,000 deaths by overdose during 2017 in the United States alone (the highest level on record), nearly 4,000 prisoners with death sentences executed worldwide since 2009 for drug-related crimes: these are some of the alarming figures quoted in the International Drug Policy Consortium’s (IDPC) report published last October. The prohibitionist policies pursued by UN member states over the past decade as part of their ‘war on drugs’ have failed to contain the growth of drug trafficking in the world, it reports. They have, it would seem, done exactly the opposite.

“The objective of eliminating drug use on a global scale is not a realistic goal,” says Rebecca Jesseman, director of policy at the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction.

In 2009, UN member states adopted the Political Declaration and Plan of Action on International Cooperation towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem, with the aim of eradicating the production, traffic and consumption of illicit substances and the diversion of precursors (chemical products available on the legal market used in the production of illicit substances) and combatting money laundering.

Far from having the desired effect, the United Nations’ drug strategy has given rise to a series of side effects, such as the emergence, between 2009 and 2017, of more than 800 new psychoactive substances, often sold at low prices as ‘legal stimulants’ and alternatives to existing illicit drugs, such as codeine, which is wreaking havoc in Nigeria, for example.

Europe, for its part, has seen a 4 per cent increase in overdose deaths since 2015, whilst in the United States, the number of overdose deaths has reached such a staggering level that life expectancy has fallen, by four months, for the first time since the Second World War.

“Many of the objectives that were identified in 2009, such as eliminating drug abuse on a global scale, were overly ambitious and perhaps not grounded in realistic assessments of the drug problem and our capacity to eliminate something that is embedded in human behaviour. We need to start to recognise that substance abuse is a health issue and not a criminal justice issue,” adds Jesseman.

A US-led approach with devastating consequences

“America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse,” said US president Richard Nixon in 1971. Ten years later, Ronald Reagan, faced with a dramatic rise in crack cocaine use in the country, branded illegal drugs as a threat to national security. For nearly half a century, the United States has shown no hesitation over adopting very strict anti-drug legislation and measures. As reported by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in 2016, possession of half an ounce (14 grams) of cannabis could result in a 20-year prison sentence.

“The US has traditionally been the champion of the ‘war on drugs’ approach. There are examples of where the US very specifically exported its approach to drugs to other countries. ‘Drug courts’ are an example of that. The US advocated hard with other countries for a very punitive, law enforcement-based approach to drugs [and] has a significant responsibility for what happened,” Diederik Lohman, director of the health program at Human Rights Watch (HRW), tells Equal Times.

Logistical and military support for local armed forces, border security, arms supplies, information sharing between American and Latin American intelligence services, as part of its crusade, the United States has shown no hesitation over the support provided to Latin American countries, which produce more than half of the heroin and cocaine consumed in the country, to tackle drug cartels operating within their borders. The United States has spent over a trillion dollars since the 1970s trying to eradicate drug production and to fight the cartels.

From Mexico to Colombia and the Philippines to Indonesia, the implementation of repressive anti-drug policies has had serious consequences in terms of human rights.

In Mexico, militarised violence between cartels and security forces has left 150,000 people dead and 37,000 missing since 2006, whilst in Latin America and Afghanistan, poppy and coca eradication campaigns have undermined the financial security of farmers deprived of economic alternatives. Last year, six coca growers were shot dead and 21 others wounded during a demonstration against an eradication operation headed by the Colombian armed forces.

A recent UN report also accuses the Mexican authorities of being responsible, in their fight against organised crime and drug cartels, for acts of torture such as asphyxiation, waterboarding and anal penetrations.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has embarked on a savage hunt to eliminate drug traffickers and users, resulting in the extrajudicial execution of more than 27,000 people since June 2016. “Hitler slaughtered three million Jews...there are three million drug addicts. I would be happy to slaughter them,” he said at a press conference in September 2016.

“A vast majority of the cocaine and heroin consumed in the United States is grown abroad. In trying to deal with the challenges that are posed by drugs, you have to think globally. You can’t say that you will build a wall around yourself and shut out the outside world. For years, the US has implemented this very harsh approach to drugs domestically and started telling countries like Colombia and Mexico to address the drugs produced in their country,” explains Lohman.

Inefficient bureaucracy and international politics

Over the past 60 years, the United Nations, which is set to define a new 10-year plan of action to counter the drug problem in March 2019, has based its drug control policies on three international treaties: the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961; the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971; and the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988.

Although these treaties do not advocate for a ‘war on drugs’, as such, experts such as Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, condemn the widespread use of repressive strategies to deal with the problem at the expense of a comprehensive public health approach.

“There has been an over use of criminal law to enforce the treaties, which still persists today. Yet, we have learnt a lot in the last 50 years about how to best address those issues. The focus on drugs has taken the focus away from public health, social development, things that you need to take into consideration if you want to address the issue of drugs. But the UN system hasn’t kept up. It’s a very slow-moving machine that doesn’t understand today’s contextual issues, such as socio-economic problems and trauma, linked to substance abuse. Countries that fund the UN system, such as Russia, the United States and China, have very draconian views on substance use. This is why the UN is not evolving,” the expert tells Equal Times.

In view of the international community’s failure and the devastating impact on public health and human rights, some countries have recently decided to turn their backs on UN policies and to decriminalise or legalise the use of certain drugs. In North America, for example, Canada and the state of Colorado, in the United States, have recently legalised the recreational use of cannabis, with the aim of regulating and taxing a product that is already widely used and eliminating drug trafficking.

In 2001, Portugal decided to decriminalise all drug use and possession. Traffickers are still considered criminals, but consumers are now treated as patients. As a result, 17 years later, the small country in southern Europe has seen a significant decrease in HIV and hepatitis infections as well as drug-related crime.

The Colorado authorities, meanwhile, have observed negative effects such as an expansion of black market cannabis growing by criminal organisations, which are taking advantage of its legalisation to smuggle the drug into states where the ban still exists.

“Harm reduction approaches like syringe exchange programmes and supervised consumption sites have been proven to have better results,” Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, tells Equal Times.

Neuroscientist and head of the department of psychology at Columbia University in New York, Carl L. Hart, has been studying the effects of drugs for nearly 30 years. In his view, there is no doubt that the punitive and prohibitionist approaches traditionally used to counter the use of illicit substances are not the right approach.

“Our drug policies are a bigger problem than the drugs themselves, because they forbid drugs that people will take anyway, which drives consumption underground,” he tells Equal Times. “We should treat drugs like we treat alcohol. A reasonable approach would be to make drugs legally available and the state should be in charge of regulating them and making sure they are of a certain quality.”

This story has been translated from French.