A war on drugs, again?

8 March 2016 | 08:07

A war on drugs, again?

Opium use in Afghanistan. Photo: © UN Photo/UNODC/Zalmai.


What makes good drug policy? A commitment to deterring drug use and cultivation through sanction, prohibition and other punitive measures? Or perhaps a leaning towards damage-limitation, as exemplified through needle exchange programmes and opioid substitution therapy? With media outlets reporting this month that all the men in an Iranian village have allegedly been executed by the government on drug charges, there never seems to have been a better time to return to the topic.


According to Harm Reduction Internationals 2015 report on the death penalty for drug offences, Iran is one of at least 33 countries and territories that prescribes the death penalty for drugs in law. Other countries include China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia


This tactic has been widely criticised by governments, human rights bodies and civil society groups  alike. They argue, first and foremost, that the approach directly contradicts international law and human rights legislation. Secondly, there has been little evidence to suggest that this tactic has made any meaningful impact on the fight against drug-related crime, illnesses and deaths.


According to Amnesty International, the aforementioned countries are ignoring evidence that a response focused on human rights and public health, including prevention of substance abuse and access to treatment, has been effective to end drug-related deaths and prevent the transmission of infectious diseases. Amnesty maintains that, even in relation to violent crime, there is not a shred of evidence that the threat of execution is more of a deterrent than any other form of punishment.


The debate around the so-called war on drugs has been going on for nearly half a decade. However, discussions around the (in)effectiveness of global drug policies have become more intense in the run-up to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem, which will take place in April this year.


The special session was originally scheduled to take place in 2019. However, pressure from the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, combined with the fact that countries like Portugal, Uruguay and New Zealandpassed groundbreaking legislation to either regulate or decriminalise drug use in recent years, meant that the meeting was pushed forward to 2016.


The objective of the UNGASS is to assess how successful policies for countering the world drug problem have been thus far, and to discuss whether and how drug policy should be reformed. In the months leading up to the negotiations, civil society organisations have been calling for various recommendations to be included in the final UNGASS outcome document. In the words of the General Assembly, this document should be a short, substantive, concise and action-oriented document comprising a set of operational recommendationsincluding an assessment of the achievements as well as ways to address long-standing and emerging challenges in countering the world drug problem.


Civil society organisations dedicated to drug policy reform, including the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), Harm Reduction International and the Asian Network of People Who Use Drugs (ANPUD), are using the momentum of the UNGASS to advocate for global reform. These players, as well as other key civil society organisations (CSOs) and networks, are united by the global campaign Stop the Harm.


Stop the Harm is by no means the only civil society coalition playing a key role in UNGASS negotiations. Nevertheless, their demands illustrate the general consensus there is amongst CSOs regarding global drug policy reform. In essence, this means pushing for a non-punitive, public health and human rights oriented approach, which is a drug policy that supports rather than punishes people who use drugs.


The crucial question is: Why?


Well, as the International Drug Policy Consortium explains, for decades law enforcement agencies around the globe (most notably the police) focused their efforts on reducing and eradicating the illicit drug market. These strategies, theIDPC argues,have led to the destruction of crops destined for the illicit drug market through aerial spraying or manual eradication campaigns, the seizure of drugs at borders, the disruption of trafficking and dealing activities, and the threat of arrest and punishment of people who use drugs.


This war on drugs strategy, the IDPC and countless other organisations affirm, have “… been unable to significantly reduce the scale of illicit drug markets or impact on the prevalence of drug use. These strategies have also had devastating impacts, including extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations, increases in violence, corruption and financial crimes, the exacerbation of poverty in producing areas, the destruction of the environment, and the explosion of drug-related health harms.


For the organisations coming under the banner of Stop the Harm, reformed global drug policy would ideally include:


  • Abolition of the death penalty for drug offences. 

Decriminalisation of people who use drugs.

Increased government expenditure on harm reduction, such as needle exchange programmes and opioid substitution therapy, which have been crucial in diminishing the spread of bloodborne viruses (HIV, hepatitis C) amongst injecting drug users and have acted gateways for other crucial health services.

Ensuring universal access to controlled medicines for pain relief and treatment of drug dependence.

Greater alignment with the UN’s recently approved Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  


April is just around the corner, but that’s a lifetime in the world of advocacy. Decriminalisation and harm reduction are likely to be the biggest sticking points. Although discussions are likely to be more productive than those held in 2009, it is widely anticipated that many member states will be unwilling to go further than merely discussing the benefits of these seemingly controversial approaches.

Sophie Bauer is a linguist, freelance writer and human rights advocate. She has worked for Amnesty International, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and Mujer y Salud en Uruguay (MYSU) supporting diverse programmes and campaigns across Latin America and the Caribbean. An insatiable writer, she started out as a student journalist for the Cambridge Tab and, whilst living in Chile, for the aptly named I Love Chile. She is now a regular blogger for the Huffington Post, a citizen journalist for Key Correspondents and deputy Women's Editor for the International Political Forum.


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