'War on Drugs' Failed and Policies Need Major Overhaul - Report

Global drug policies need an overhaul, new report says. Credit: Jonathan Gonzalez/Unsplash
Global drug policies need an overhaul, new report says. Credit: Jonathan Gonzalez/Unsplash
  • by Ed Holt (bratislava)
  • Inter Press Service

Using wide-ranging data from UN, government, academic, and civil society sources, ‘Off track: Shadow Report for the mid-term review of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration on drugs’ released today (December 5) by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), illustrates the collapse of the UN drug control regime, its authors say.

It shows how despite billions spent every year to curb drug markets and availability, in the last four years, the number of people who use drugs has risen to historic levels, overdose deaths are surging, executions for drug offences have soared, and millions have continued to be imprisoned for drug offences. And this is all while access to treatment for drug dependency remains low and shockingly unequal in different parts of the world.

But at the same time, the group claims, the long-held consensus behind global prohibition is fracturing and since 2019, the number of people who can legally access internationally controlled drugs for non-medical use more than doubled to over 294 million.

“There has often been an attitude that drugs are wrong and that the approach to drug use should be a punitive one. But recently there has been a growing recognition, on the ground and at grassroots level but also at some policymaking level, that this approach is not working. That recognition is accelerating as we reach a breaking point on this,” Marie Nougier, Head of Research and Communications at IDPC and one of the main authors of the report, told IPS.

The report is, according to IDPC, the only completely comprehensive evaluation of drug policy developments globally since the 2019 Ministerial Declaration on drugs which laid down the main objectives of the international community in addressing the world drug situation for a 10-year period. It also shows how drug policy has affected, both negatively and positively, not just drug users but other communities and people affected by drug use.

Drawing on a broad range of data and evidence, as well as on the experience of civil society and communities, the report shows, however, that there has been little, incomplete, or no progress in achieving the Declaration’s objectives.

Presenting personal testimony as well as data on, among others, drug use, drug production and trafficking, and the effects of drug law enforcement on users and others, it concludes there is little evidence that policies aimed at the prohibition and eradication of drugs have been effective in reducing illegal drug markets, or tackling their connection with human insecurity, violence, and organised crime.

But its authors say there is widespread proof that punitive policies on drug use promoted by governments have actually undermined some of the key aims of the 2019 Ministerial Declaration itself and of the broader UN system, including the promotion of health, human rights, and sustainable development.

“The approach to drug use needs to be rethought,” said Nougier, citing examples of countries which have moved away from punitive approaches to drug use.

“No one country has a great drug policy – they all face different issues with regard to their drug policies – but for instance Colombia has implemented steps to address human rights in its drug policies and is looking to really move its policies in the right direction; Ghana is another example – in 2020 it replaced a punishment of a minimum five-year jail sentence for possession of drugs for personal use with giving judges the option of imposing a fine instead,” she said.

The latter change came out of working with civil society to review drug laws which now seek, amongst others, to treat drug use and dependence as a public health issue rather than focusing on law enforcement, incarceration, punishment, and repression, she explained.

The report also brings a focus on how the ‘war on drugs’ has also disproportionately affected some communities – and how little has been done to deal with this.

According to the civil society organisations surveyed for the report, drug control operations have a disproportionate impact on marginalised communities to a significantly high degree, in all corners of the world. However, only 12 out of the 54 survey respondents (22%) reported government efforts to reduce – directly or indirectly – such disproportionate impacts.

It highlights, and gives evidence, including personal testimony, for example of the disproportionate racial and gender impact of the enforcement of drug laws.

“There are lots of people apart from drug users themselves who are being affected by the ‘war on drugs’, for instance along lines of race and gender, among others. There are intrinsically racist approaches to drug control in some countries. Those targeted by law enforcement are often from specific groups,” Nougier pointed out.

For many years, critics of punitive drug policies, including major healthcare bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), as well as drug users themselves, have called for decriminalisation of drug use, backed by the provision of harm reduction services such as needle exchange programmes, opioid agonist therapy (OAT) services, and others, as a public health measure.

But while many countries have seen the benefits of harm reduction measures and enthusiastically implemented at least some of them – although access to such programmes remains very poor in many parts of the Global South—policymakers, at least at national level, are much more reticent when it comes to decriminalisation.

“Politicians won’t say it in so many words, but the feeling we get is that it’s too much political effort to change drug policy. When we talk to them, they are very engaged and supportive when it comes to harm reduction measures, but as soon as you mention decriminalisation, everything changes,” said Nougier.

Campaigners for drug policy reform point to the recent pushback by the UK government to plans to open the UK’s first drug consumption room, where users could take their own drugs under medical supervision, in Glasgow. Discussed for years, it finally got the green light in September after it was confirmed that users at the room would not be prosecuted.

But the approval, granted by city authorities, was immediately criticised by the then Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, who said it was the wrong policy to address drug dependency, while Home Office minister Chris Philp said previously the UK Government does not support such facilities in England and Wales, over concern they “condone or even encourage” drug use.

Peter Krykant, a former drug addict who ran his own unsanctioned mobile ‘overdose prevention service’ in Glasgow for years, and who is now campaign lead for charity Cranstoun’s drug and alcohol support service, told IPS: “What we on the front line feel is that everything is getting harder every year because we’re not seeing any change to the system.”

However, policy reform advocates also point out that the room was approved and is set to open soon, with more cities in the UK likely to now apply for approval for similar facilities. They say this comes from a growing movement at grassroots level for a change in approaches to drug use.

“Grassroots advocacy, led by people who use drugs working in alliance with other community groups, has probably been the most effective approach towards establishing drug consumption rooms in cities. It is drug user activism that is challenging the status quo, taking the risks, and ultimately changing the law,” Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, a UK-based NGO campaigning for drug policy reform, told IPS.

Krykant pointed out that local communities have welcomed the Glasgow drug consumption room, with support for such sites high among the public.

There are signs that this is being recognised at a higher level, too. Earlier this year the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, called for an end to the ‘war on drugs’ and transformative changes towards drug policies based on health and human rights. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also called for the decriminalisation of drug use and responsible regulation of drug markets by governments.

The IDPC report, which is being released before the mid-term review at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March next year, makes note of the recognition, especially by Turk, of the failings of the current widespread punitive approach to drugs and gives a set of recommendations for transformative change of the UN drug control regime. These include, among others, putting health, development, and human rights at the heart of drug policy, and allowing countries to consider the legal regulation of drugs.

Many campaigners say decriminalisation and, eventually, regulation of drugs need to be implemented as soon as possible in global drug policies, from a public health perspective, if nothing else.

“Decriminalisation of drug possession is crucial if we want to see the best possible health outcomes for people who use drugs. Criminalisation is a major driver for stigma and marginalisation, which acts as a barrier to accessing services,” said Eastwood.

"Ultimately, though, regulation of drugs is the only way we can ensure that the supply of substances is as safe as possible. With an ever-more toxic supply across the world and now occurring in the UK, we need to protect people’s health by ensuring they have access to a regulated supply,” she added.

Nougier said that while the report makes a number of calls for reforms, the first steps to key policy changes, including decriminalisation, could be taken very easily.

“It would be naïve to think all the reforms and changes we are calling for could be done in their entirety overnight, but what we are saying is that governments need to recognise that the war on drugs is ‘undoable’, and that reforms need to be started now. That acknowledgement could be made immediately, and while decriminalisation in terms of policy would obviously take time, in practice it could be changed overnight simply by telling police not to criminalise people for drug use,” she said.

“Drug policy should be reviewed. You shouldn’t need to be repressing communities, instead you should be looking to support them,” Nougier added.

Quotes from Diego Garcia Sayan, Global Commission on Drug Policy:

Throughout my career as a lawyer, judge, minister, and human rights expert, I have seen first-hand how in Latin American countries and around the world, highly punitive drug control efforts have been a key driver of violence and mass incarceration, especially for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and people living in poverty.

The mid-term review, alongside other discussions taking place in Vienna, Geneva, and elsewhere, should lay the ground for a process of deep reform that will shed the global punitive paradigm, and protect the health, welfare, and human rights of people everywhere, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. This Shadow Report provides concrete steps on how this can be made possible.

Quote from Petra Schulz, Moms Stop The Harm, who lost her child Danny from drug poisoning in 2014:

Looking into the future, I see legally regulated substances with a public health focus as the only possible alternative. The war on drugs has failed many, and there are too many casualties, including our youngest child. Not a day goes by where I don’t think where he might be and what he might do if he was still with us.

Quote from Alexey Kvitkovsky, who provides critical peer support for People Who Use Drugs in war-torn Ukraine

I transported patients from their homes to the OAT room in my car under fire, and thanks to this, dozens of people got access to their medication. As a peer counsellor, I continued to advise OAT patients from Luhansk Oblast who had evacuated to the western regions of Ukraine from the hotspots on various issues: where to get humanitarian aid, OST, and antiretroviral medications, where temporary shelters were available, and how to get clothing and food.

Quote from Mona, mother of Hamza, who suffered excruciating pain due to a rare type of bone cancer

I would like to share the story of our son Hamza. He suffered from Ewing sarcoma for three years. The cancer spread throughout his body and the pain was out of control. The only rest he found was in the form of morphine, a painkiller that allowed him to sleep, eat and even breathe… Looking for medicine was our daily mission because we understood that any laps in our efforts would mean a hard pain for our beloved son.

Quote from Raj, who suffered first hand from the war on drugs in Patna City, India

Detained without due process, I endured physical abuse and intimidation, my dignity was stripped away by those meant to protect it. It became painfully clear that the war on drugs was a breeding ground for unchecked power and brutality. Forced to navigate a Kafkaesque legal system, I grappled with the trauma of my ordeal, witnessing firsthand the erosion of justice in the name of an elusive war.

Quote from Manoela Andrade, a woman who uses drugs in Brazil

We all know that the war on drugs was never against drugs, but against specific people. But what you may not know is that we, black women, are the most affected by this genocidal political project of body control.

Quote from Christian, a person who uses cannabis in Malta

The home-growing law adopted in Malta in 2021 has been a huge plus for us. Less dependence from the illegal market and its repercussions on the world, less dependence on importation, and now we get to know what we are consuming.

Quote from Junior “spirit” Cottle, a traditional cannabis farmer from St Vincent and the Grenadines

The perception that we are doing well, and that doing drugs means wallowing in money is a misconception. The illegal nature of what we do brings with it many risks. Like the risk of being caught and imprisoned, the risk of being robbed by armed gangs, the risk of having your crop being eradicated by law enforcement agencies… Yet we continue to ply the trade. And we do so because we have our families to care for, with little or no other source of employment.

any growers have come to see the industry as a rich man’s paradise. But all is not lost. We must continue to struggle for a better space within the new industry, for a situation of fair trade, sustainability, and social justice.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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