The Roadmap to End the Global Drug Policy Problem: It’s ruining lives, damaging communities and destabilising countries

The global drug policy problem

International ‘drug’ prohibition is an archaic system rooted in the 1950s that was consolidated in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. It has had a devastating global impact on individuals, families, communities and countries. In decades to come, it will be remembered as one of the most arbitrary, barbaric and brutal systems of oppression in recent history.

“What we have come to regard as ‘drugs’ is a social and cultural construct lacking any pharmacological evidence base.”

During this period we have been conned and coerced into embracing and promoting state approved drugs (alcohol, caffeine, tobacco & sugar), and to view with disdain all substances banned by the government. This sharp distinction between state approved and state banned drugs has no scientific or pharmacological foundation to support it, it is entirely based on political propaganda. What is commonly referred to as ‘drugs’ is simply a list of substances arbitrarily excluded for political reasons. Despite the lack of evidence to support this distinction between substances, banned drugs have been demonised by attributing blame upon the drug for the devastating damage caused by prohibition, or by a circular government argument that: ‘drugs are dangerous and the evidence that they are dangerous, is that they are illegal’.

“Prohibition too, has distorted and thwarted our thinking on drug prevention, drug eduction and drug treatment which have instead become preoccupied with avoiding ‘drugs’”

Indeed, one of the greatest threats to life is posed not by drugs, but by a drug conviction. A criminal record for a drug defined crime may result in insurmountable hurdles when seeking employment, education, accommodation, international travel, insurance and relationships. In some countries, a drug conviction can lead to incarceration — even the death penalty. A growing punitiveness has seen Duterte in the Philippines and Trump in the US, both advocate death for drug dealers, which in the Philippines appears to have been interpreted as legitimating the killing of suspects without trial or due process. This barbaric reaction to suspected drug dealers excludes of course, without any sense of irony or hypocrisy, those who deal in state-approved drugs.

Courtesy of Drug Policy Alliance: http://www.drugpolicy.org/

“‘Drug’ enforcement has been deeply divisive — targeting the poor, the indigenous, people of colour, and people from black and minority ethnic groups”

Efforts to eradicate supply over many decades have largely been futile, they have barely had any impact whatsoever, on reducing illegal drug supplies. But in countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia crop eradication and carcinogenic crop spraying have devastated some of the poorest farmers in the country, a desperately poor community with few viable alternatives available to them.

Courtesy of Release: https://www.release.org.uk/publications/numbers-black-and-white-ethnic-disparities-policing-and-prosecution-drug-offences

What needs to be done?

There are two main risks for people who use prohibited substances: the damage caused by law enforcement, criminalisation and punishment; and the other is the damage caused by not knowing what you are using because there is no framework for quality control. Both issues must be resolved, — but the greatest extent of damage is caused by former not the latter.

“…people who are both white and privileged are rarely captured in the ever extending enforcement net of prohibition.”

It is important to remember, that brutal enforcement measures meted out for drug defined crimes disproportionately target and impact the poor, BME and indigenous people. Whereas, by contrast, people who are both white and privileged are rarely captured in the ever-extending enforcement net of prohibition. For this privileged group the greatest threat is not a heavy-handed criminal justice system that threatens to target and ruin life opportunities with a drug conviction, no, the more likely threat they face is posed by ingesting an adulterated drug with has not been quality controlled.

“Legal Regulation is a somewhat vague ‘rally call’ from drug law reformers a little like a rallying call asking the government to take control of drugs.”

If in seeking to end Prohibition, we rally behind Legal Regulation, we are supporting a vague concept. For example, alcohol is a legally regulated drug (poorly regulated in my opinion), but opioids too, are a legally regulated drug (far too strictly in my opinion). So when we call for Legal Regulation what are we actually rallying behind, and what would it look like in policy and practice?

“Regulation that perpetuates a two tier system of state approved drugs that can only be purchased; and unapproved drugs which are banned; simply replicates the existing oppressive model.”

Protesters demand an “end to the new Jim Crow.”. Joe Brusky/Flickr.com

Those who suffered most under Prohibition must be the first to be protected in any new regime.

Let’s be clear and tell it as it is: the problem is Prohibition (not drugs per se); the protagonists are the UN & government law enforcement (not gangsters); the damage is largely caused by the military, criminal and community justice system (not criminals); and the victims we must protect are not so much the privileged class (who are relatively by comparison, unaffected), but the poor, indigenous and BME communities who have for decades suffered unfairly under prohibition.

The way forward

We should not support any Legal Regulation model that includes punishing adults for personal possession or consumption of ‘unapproved’ substances. This is a fundamental human right abuse enshrined in Prohibition that under no circumstances should be accommodated in reform. It’s your body and your choice what you ingest. Most advocates for Legal Regulation are silent on such issues, or regard trading those rights as a necessary compromise to broker ‘reform’. For example, New Zealand received global acclaim for its highly publicised ‘World Leading Drug Reform’ when they introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 to legally regulate New Psychoactive Substances.

“We should not support any Legal Regulation model that includes punishing adults for personal possession or consumption of ‘unapproved’ substances. This is a fundamental human right abuse”

However, what the model did was widened the net of prohibition by making the possession of previously legal drugs (legal highs or NPS) illegal, and it also offered an approval system for NPS via a regulation process. The fact that it worryingly punished personal adult possession of unapproved substances, leaving the door open to the heart of the problem (Prohibition) seemed to be overlooked by drug reformers.

Image courtesy of Release: https://www.release.org.uk/publications/drug-decriminalisation-2016

Decriminalisation — the low hanging fruit

Portugal did the right thing in 2001 when they decriminalising all personal possession of drugs and built in additional support for the small percentage of drug users who develop problems with addiction. It’s a drug reform no-brainer! It is a decision that makes great sense and it has had positive outcomes in reducing: addiction rates; the burden on the criminal justice system; and fatal overdoses.

“…the key reform priority is to end all law enforcement for adult drug possession, cultivation and production for personal use.”

An open invitation to state (the perpetrators of prohibition), who have consistently and deliberately ignored science and evidence and continued to enforce a brutal and draconian system of prohibition for decades, to devise a new regulation model, is likely to result in continued disproportionate law enforcement measures imposed on the poor, the indigenous and BME groups for possession of ‘unapproved’ drugs. Before the state even begins to think about the difficult and complex process of legally regulating drugs, we must first and foremost, ensure we abolish Prohibition once and for all and restore human rights.

“…hopefully we have learned lessons from alcohol and tobacco regulation, so forewarned and forearmed — we can do a much better job living with all drugs.”

In terms of adult accessing drugs initially, the main outlets could be pharmacies, soon followed by off licenses and gradually a cultural change with the most commonly preferred social and recreational drugs being available in cafe’s, bars, restaurants and major events. This may sound like unknown territory, but it isn’t really. Regrettably, we have already regulated, culturally accommodated, privileged and promoted arguably the most harmful drug of all — alcohol — and we’ve regulated it badly. However, despite pushing a particularly poisonous harmful drug and managing it poorly, we have lived to tell the tale, and while reading this folk might be enjoying a glass of Pinot Noir, rightly without any sense of panic or fear. We know from the folly of alcohol prohibition we need to live with drugs, but hopefully, we have learned lessons from alcohol and tobacco regulation, so forewarned and forearmed — we can do a much better job living with all drugs. While there will be a concern for an increased range of drug-related issues, the wider availability and choice is likely to lead to some wiser and better-informed choices — some already being witnessed in areas that have legalised cannabis.

Retired Professor, international expert in drug policy, researcher, public speaker, writer and ex UN advisor.