Earlier this month an attempt by United Nations officials to urge countries to decriminalise the use and possession of all drugs was foiled, reportedly after pressure from the US government. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) had been poised to publish a statement endorsing the decriminalisation of the use and possession of drugs at an international harm reduction conference in Malaysia. Had the paper been published, it would have marked a radical change in policy – legislation in the UN drug conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988 specifies that member states are obligated to criminalise the possession of drugs for personal use.
Although the paper was withdrawn, the fact that the statement was written in the first place is reflective of an increasing recognition that outright prohibition is causing more harm than good. More than four decades have passed since former US President Richard Nixon launched the so-called “War on Drugs”, declaring drug abuse “public enemy number one.” The fruits of those efforts? Millions of people, mostly poor, behind bars; the number of drug overdoses remains high, with heroin-related overdose deaths in the US quadrupling between 2002 and 2013; and each year tens of thousands are murdered in drug trade-related violence.
The recent Netflix series, Narcos, dramatises the rise, through a reign of terror, of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in the 1970s and 1980s. The policies that create the kind of conditions that incentivise extreme levels of violence in the name of profit – and inspire great television – should have been consigned to history. And yet they haven’t. Escobar made it onto the Forbes Billionaires List seven years in a row. Decades later, drug lords continue to make billions. The wealthiest drug kingpin today, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, recently made headlines after using his power and influence to escape maximum security prison for the second time. Meanwhile, the obscene wealth of other contemporary ‘narcos’ is openly flaunted on Instagram.
Unfortunately drug trade-related profits – and the violence that arises from their pursuit – are not going away any time soon. The foiled UNODC report called for the decriminalisation – not legalisation – of drugs. Assuming decriminalisation does eventually take hold globally, the drug trade would continue to be a profitable criminal enterprise. Nevertheless, it would be a step in the right direction.
The UNODC report lists the negative effects of criminalisation: the threat of arrest obstructs access to life-saving health services, while the emphasis on criminalisation fuels discrimination against drug users and leaves them vulnerable to sexual, physical and psychological abuse; drug users are often held in compulsory drug detention centres without proper judicial process and face treatment interventions that are not evidence-based and are in contradiction with medical ethics and human rights; and millions of people are imprisoned for minor, non-violent drug-related offences – worldwide, more than one in five people sentenced to prison are sentenced for drug crimes.
The UNODC report states that the overarching concern of the international drug control system is the “health and welfare of mankind.” On this occasion, the UNODC is on the right side of history. The negative effects of criminalisation are plain to see and in places where decriminalisation has been tried, such as Portugal, fears that such a policy might send the wrong message and lead to an increase in drug use, have not been realised. Although it was ultimately withdrawn, the drafting of the report hopefully marks a turning point in the global narrative and emboldens governments to consider implementing more humane policies. The War on Drugs will not end anytime soon, but maybe the war on drug users can.