Report on the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy
The Global Commission on Drug Policy reported this week. The Commission included current and former presidents and prime ministers, secretaries of state etc from of a number of countries, Kofi Annan and Richard Branson. Jamie Fairlie tells us what it said:
‘The war on drugs has failed’. This is the recurring theme throughout the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s recent report. Indeed, the sentence was used as the introduction to several sections in the report. It calls for governments across the globe to, among other things, “end the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others”; “offer health and treatment services to those in need”; “abolish abusive practices carried out in the name of treatment”; and to “apply much the same principles and policies stated above to people involved in the lower ends of illegal drug markets, such as farmers, couriers and petty sellers.”
Our own government’s reaction to this was swift and unsurprising. On Wednesday night a spokesman from the Home Office said “We have no intention of liberalising our drugs laws. Drugs are illegal because they are harmful – they destroy lives.”
The reason for the commission making their rather bold claim is clear. In the 50 years since the United Nations began what would eventually become the War On Drugs the measures taken by governments across the world has seemed to have little or no effect on the drug market. In fact, drug consumption has increased in this time, quite dramatically in the cases of some drugs. Heroin consumption, for example, has risen some 34.5%. In addition to this, the effects that a hard line approach to policing drugs has had are almost all negative. A vast black market has grown from the risk-escalated profits associated with the drug trade. Poor countries spend vast amounts of money on ineffectual attempts at law enforcement. Drug users, often with severe health problems, are treated as criminals. Obviously the current approach is not working.
The reason for our government’s reaction to the report, however unsurprising, is less clear. Why in the face of overwhelming evidence against it are they continuing with an outdated programme that causes more problems than it solves? The Commission’s report is based on clear and sensible principles: that drug policies must be based on “solid empirical and scientific evidence,” and “on human rights and public health principles,” and that “the primary measure of success should be the reduction of harm to the health, security and welfare of individuals and society.” The recommendations made in the report all come with a huge amount of data, research or case studies that demonstrate that these policies are in line with their initial principles. What do governments, not just our own, hope to achieve by ignoring that and blindly trudging down a path proven to lead to increased drug dependency and related crime?
I can not claim to be privy to the inner thoughts of the world’s leaders, but in this case I think I can hazard a guess at them. The current War on Drugs does not, as it initially claimed to, focus on ‘health and welfare of mankind’ at all. Rather, it is an ideological stance. Drug use is illegal for the same reason homosexuality was and is: governments believe that it is seen by many as amoral. They outlaw it because they believe that the majority of their electorate find it offensive.
The report would seem to back me up on this. It specifically calls on politicians to “have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won,” as well as stating that “Currently, too many policymakers reinforce the idea that all people who use drugs are ‘amoral addicts’, and all those involved in drug markets are ruthless criminal masterminds.”
If this explanation is indeed the case then in my mind the most important part of the report is its fifth recommendation: “challenge, rather than reinforce, common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence.” Here the commission calls on governments to try and bring about an end to some of the common myths about drug dealers and users by making people aware of some well established facts, such as ‘the majority of people who use drugs do not fit the stereotype of the ‘amoral and pitiful addict’”; “most people involved in the illicit cultivation of coca, opium poppy, or cannabis are small farmers struggling to make a living for their families”; “the factors that contribute to the development of problematic or dependent patterns of use have more to do with childhood trauma or neglect, harsh living conditions, social marginalization, and emotional problems, rather than moral weakness or hedonism”; and that “Most people involved in drug trafficking are petty dealers and not the stereotyped gangsters from the movies – the vast majority of people imprisoned for drug dealing or trafficking are ‘small fish’ in the operation (often coerced into carrying or selling drugs), who can easily be replaced without disruption to the supply.”
I feel that there is another reason to spotlight this particular recommendation. While only those actually in government are able to directly effect the way that drugs are policed or the types of sentences handed out to drug users and dealers, this spreading of awareness can be done by anyone. Every single one of us can help dispel myths and raise awareness of facts.
In all, this report simply reiterates what we on the left have been saying for some time: that a law enforcement approach to tackling the drug trade is counter productive and that what is required are policies based on public health and well-being, which will almost always lead to a reduction in crime. Perhaps if our Home Office understood all this they would see that drugs do not usually do much harm, nor do they destroy lives. Their policies on them, however, do both these things. In the words of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, “Break the taboo on debate and reform. The time for action is now.”