Drug Use is a Health Issue - We Need to Decriminalize

  • Opinion by Simona Marinescu (apia, samoa)
  • Inter Press Service

As small as this bust is by global standards, 1,400 grams in a couple of months is a record for Samoa (there were only two convictions for methamphetamine possession in Samoa in 2017). Perhaps it is inevitable that we will see an increase in seizures. As COVID-19 ravishes the economy and exacerbates inequality, some may look to less than legal means to supplement their dwindling incomes, and drug use is known to increase in communities facing economic hardship. Governments need to work to reduce drug consumption – especially with respect to more harmful substances like meth and opioids, which have devastated communities around the world. For example, there were more than 67,000 overdose deaths in the US alone in 2018. Thankfully, so far, Samoa has avoided this degree of harm.

But while it is sometimes tempting to “crack down” (no pun intended) in the face of an emerging perceived threat, we must resist the urge to increase legal penalties. We should be decriminalizing drug use and possession. Drugs are a serious health and social issue, not a moral one. Reducing consumption requires a health and socially focused response, not moral panic. This must include carefully thought-out laws that emphasize prevention, education and harm reduction. We need properly funded community-based support services that help and protect vulnerable people, and assist them in escaping degrading and difficult circumstances. Stopping drug use will not be achieved through hastily drafted legislation that further criminalizes addiction. By discouraging the demand for drugs, we can actually be more effective in tackling drug trafficking and putting an end to the human suffering caused by increased consumption.

This is not just my opinion – but the official policy of the United Nations, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and multiple governments around the world. Canada, the Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland, and numerous Australian and US states are among the many jurisdictions that have embraced the global trend towards less repression of drug users. A recent example of this is New Zealand’s 2019 Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill, which gives police discretion to take a health-centred approach rather than prosecuting those in possession of drugs.

Since its enactment in 1967, Samoa’s Narcotics Act has only been amended twice, in 2006 and 2009 respectively. An official report in 2017 says that these amendments “were inadequate to address the prevalence of drug-related issues in Samoa and the new developments in the evolving drug environment.” There is a clear need to reform Samoa’s ancient drug legislation, but we must reform in line with the best available evidence. Tougher prison sentences have not been shown to deter possession, reduce offending or diminish the social or health issues associated with drug use. They have only been shown to intensify and complicate these problems.

Calling for decriminalization is by no means an endorsement of drug use – but an appeal to look towards the evidence. Samoa has been a willing participant in the global “war on drugs” – adopting the broken criminalization model for more than 50 years. (If you are fighting a “war” for more than five decades and you haven’t “won,” you need to reassess your strategy.) Prohibition has only succeeded in creating an illegal market ruled by violence, corruption and insecurity. Samoa must adopt better practices and distance itself from the failings of this ideologically-driven approach.

The author is United Nations Resident Coordinator, Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa, and Tokelau.

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