13 March 2009

Is the world coming to its senses on drug policy?

As the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs met in Vienna this week to set world drug policy for the next decade, a European Commission report claimed the UN strategy over the past decade has been a failure. Ten years of that strategy, operating under the ludicrous slogan "a drug-free world - we can do it," was described in the report as providing, "no evidence that the global drug problem was reduced," and went on to say, "Broadly speaking, the situation has improved a little in some of the richer countries while for others it worsened, and for some it worsened sharply and substantially."

In the United States, chief promoter of the hardline approach, half a million citizens languish in prison for non-violent, drug-related crimes, yet drug use persists while prices decline. Last year, 6,000 Mexicans died in wars between the cartels. Recently, yet another leader of a drug-ridden country -- Guinea Bissau -- was assassinated. The United Nations estimates 70 per cent of international crime is fueled by drugs, an industry worth over $300-billion U.S. a year. Millions of victims suffer from HIV contacted from dirty needles. The failure has many faces but most stem from the laws, not the drugs.

The Economist magazine, which refers to past drug policy as "a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world," has proposed an approach that offers a way out of the current morass, arguing for legalization as the least bad solution. "Legalization," the Economist suggests, "would not only drive away the gangsters, it would transform drugs from a law-and-order problem into a public health problem, which is how it ought to be treated." The Economist approach would have governments tax and regulate drugs and use the revenues raised, as well as the billions saved on law enforcement, to educate the public about drug use. Prices would be set such that they would encourage neither drug use nor illegal trafficking with its attendant theft and prostitution. Justice systems would save enormous sums, and control of drugs would be transferred from criminals to the state.

As to the argument that legalization would contribute to more drug use, the Economist points out that "citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer." As for addiction, while Sweden's drug laws are harsh and Norway's relatively liberal, the two countries have identical addiction rates. The Economist nonetheless concedes that cheaper, safer, legal drugs might lead to increased use. This would be balanced, however, by the ability to deal with use and addiction properly.

The United Nations admits it is losing its war on drugs, yet the action plan produced in Vienna remains focused on eradicating supply. The plan does, however, include support for "mainstreaming drug treatment and rehabilitation into national healthcare systems; and ensuring accessibility to drug demand reduction services." The intent of the plan is somewhat in the eyes of the beholder. More progressive countries, including Germany, the U.K. and Australia, interpret it as including harm reduction such as needle-exchange programs, while others, including the U.S., Colombia and Russia, object to that interpretation, saying it condones drug use.

While the UN conference showed little progress, developments in the United States show promise. President Obama has appointed a progressive as his new drugs czar. As Seattle's chief of police, Gil Kerlikowske oversaw treatment and rehabilitation replace prosecution as the first choice for dealing with drug abuse. If his nomination is approved by the Senate, Kerlikowske will become director of the office of national drug control policy for a president who has declared that the U.S. war on drugs, now 40 years old, is "an utter failure." A more enlightened approach from the traditional leader of the law-and-order crowd would be helpful indeed.

So small flashes of light are appearing in the darkness that is world drug policy. Legalization remains a distant goal, but we seem to be inching in that direction. No doubt it involves risk, too, but abandoning a policy that only makes things worse justifies a lot of risk.

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