Giving International Drug Policies a Chance to Turn the Tide

FILE - In this June 21, 2013 file photo, yellow police crime tape that reads in Spanish; "Police. Do not pass," stretches acr
FILE - In this June 21, 2013 file photo, yellow police crime tape that reads in Spanish; "Police. Do not pass," stretches across packages of seized narcotics including heroin, cocaine and marijuana, at a drug burning operation on the outskirts of Panama City. A year after three Latin American presidents have shaken the hornet's nest, they calling on the United Nations to seek other alternatives to military means in the fight against drug trafficking, a concept that seems to be gaining ground. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)

Government representatives from around the world gathered in Vienna in March for the annual UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Behind the façade of a 50-year-old global consensus on the "drug free world" ideology, more countries than ever before spoke out for an end to the "war on drugs" and are pushing forward with new approaches.

Yet there is still a long way to go to turn the tide. As the growing rift between reform-minded and prohibitionist-oriented countries played out over several months during the UN negotiations on a 'joint ministerial statement', the Commission on Narcotic Drugs failed to agree on core issues such as harm reduction (despite a strong call from the scientific community), public health and a strong commitment to the principles of human rights. But now is the time for action to finally set up a new international strategy for the twenty-first century.

Successive reports from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), among others, show that we are further than ever from the promised 'drug free world'. Despite permanent increases in global enforcement spending, global drug markets continue to grow as figures show -- in 2011 an estimated 240 million people used an illegal drug, an increase of 18 percent over the period 2008-2011.

Beyond the failure in achieving its main goals, the UNODC has identified major negative outcomes of the current punitive enforcement led-policies. These include the creation of a vast 'criminal black market' worth over US$ 300 billion a year, a surge in violence and corruption generated by this market, an increased marginalisation and stigmatisation of people who use drugs -- those in whose names and for whom the entire system was presumably designed -- as well as a lasting toll on public health policies to manage drugs conditions that undermines their positive impact. Furthermore, the burden of this failed costly policy falls on the most poor and vulnerable populations.

If just a small fraction of the money spent each year on drug-related law enforcement globally -- about $100 billion per year -- was re-directed towards drug-related health and social services, countless lives would be saved. Crucially at a time of economic constraints, we are not asking for more money but for reallocating available resources based on a more effective and more balanced spending.

The first Report issued in 2011 by the Global Commission on Drugs Policy highlighted these outcomes and collateral damage. The Commission -- made up of former heads of state and senior UN officials -- has repeatedly called for a shift from exclusively punitive enforcement-led policies to a more balanced and pragmatic approach based on public health and human rights. Its second and third Reports focused on the dramatic impact of the "war on drugs" strategy in fuelling the HIV epidemics and viral hepatitis among people who inject drugs.

These evidence-based reports have helped to break the taboo on drug law reform. These are not just words -- the debate on alternatives to the 'war on drugs' is gaining unprecedented momentum. It is time to revisit the UN's repressive, one-size-fits-all approach that has prevailed over the past decades, and open up new avenues for international cooperation allowing individual countries and specific regions the freedom to explore drug policies that better suit their needs.

An array of reforms is now blossoming across the world: nearly 100 countries are now supporting the harm reduction approach in policy and/or practice -- including methadone treatment as well as needle and syringe programmes; around 20 countries have adopted some form of decriminalisation of drug possession and use; Uruguay, along with the States of Washington and Colorado in the USA, have become the first jurisdictions in the world to establish legal, regulated cannabis markets.

Against this backdrop, the Global Commission on Drugs Policy is tackling this problem head-on: it has been strongly advocating for the immediate end of the criminalisation of people who use drugs and it has been calling on countries to continue exploring options for health and harm reduction as well as strict legal market regulation for some currently illegal drugs. There is an accumulating body of evidence that supports alternative approaches based on principles of public health, harm reduction, cost-effectiveness and respect for human rights. The UN should recognize that "its role is to assist states as they pursue best practices policies based on science and evidence, not work to counteract them", as a recent Report by the LSE Expert Group pointed out.

To enable concrete reforms to take place at the global level in the near future, the time for action is now. Raising global awareness remains the main challenge ahead as we move on towards the 2016 UN Summit on Drugs. Strong leadership and intensive collaborative action in the international arena toward a paradigm shift in drugs policy is driving change, as well as global advocacy at grass roots level -- such as the "Support. Don't Punish" campaign.

Let's use the upcoming International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, celebrated on June 26, to speak out, call on reforms, push for a new global drug strategy, and speak smart on drugs. Let's help now to turn the tide.