Despite growing acknowledgement that the war on drugs has failed, global consensus on the way forward remains elusive. Nevertheless, some detect a “paradigm shift” among many players at the forefront of the debate.
At a panel discussion in New York on 25 March, hosted by the Open Society Foundation’s (OSF) Global Drug Policy Program, experts from Switzerland and the Czech Republic offered some pointers by showcasing their countries’ successes in adopting harm-reduction approaches that treat drug abuse as a public health problem rather than a crime.
In 2016 the UN General Assembly Special Session is scheduled to adopt a consensus on drug control. As the deadline draws nearer, NGOs and policy groups are intent on broadening the debate and exploring new options on drug policy.
Meanwhile, after months of negotiations at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, the governing body of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the resolutions recently adopted do not reflect the emerging opposition to the status quo of several Latin American and European countries. Media reports suggested a major split emerging between countries on “the war on drugs” approach and whether it should be abandoned or not.
Speakers at the panel discussion expressed hope that the demonstrable successes in their countries (Switzerland and the Czech Republic) will motivate other nations to experiment with similar programmes.
Experts sense a “sea change” in the direction that top-level discussions are taking, with many countries in agreement that current policies are failing, and Latin American countries - worn down by the drug wars playing out in their territories - applying increasing pressure on the USA and other countries to adopt new approaches. However, experts also fear that those countries that continue to link drugs to criminalization and even the death penalty - Russia, China, Malaysia and Iran to name some - will try to block any significant amendments to the UN’s drug policy.
Pressure for change
At a similar UN General Assembly Special Session in 2009, political leaders endorsed the existing policy of drug prohibition with the goal of eliminating illicit drug use. Since then - and billions of dollars later - the policy still shows few if any signs of success: illegal drugs are more prevalent than ever, popping up in new designer incarnations that require yet more categories of prohibition; the drug wars continue; prisons are over-crowded with users, dealers and traffickers; and communities continue to suffer the ravages of HIV, Hepatitis C, gang wars, crime and broken homes.
According to OSF, “decades of law and order approaches to drug control have consumed billions of dollars of public and private funds, destroyed lives and communities, and done little to reduce the harm caused by drugs.”
For OSF, the statistics speak for themselves: the production of opium increased by 102 percent and cocaine by 20 percent from 1998 to 2007, despite efforts to destroy crops around the world; in the US close to 500,000 people are in jail for drug offences, compared with 41,000 in 1980; the US spent 93 percent of its resources on cocaine for law enforcement and only 7 percent on treatment programmes; more than 30 countries impose the death penalty for drug-related crimes; over 70 percent of HIV infections in Russia are due to injecting drugs… The list goes on and the casualties of the drug wars mount.
A Swiss experiment
Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland and a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, spoke about how public pressure to curb its drug problem triggered a policy change.
The Swiss authorities’ inability to deal with growing numbers of drug users in public places led to them being herded into a common space in Zurich referred to as “Needle Park” in the late 1980s. When HIV data was first gathered then, Switzerland had the highest infection rate in Western Europe. By 1988/9 half of all new cases were a result of injecting drug use.
But from successful “experimental studies”, new government policy emerged that saw an emphasis on harm reduction across the spectrum - from prevention counselling to provision of prescription heroin, or heroin assisted therapy (HAT), in government-run safe injection centres. The new methods showed that the health of patients improved, drug use did not increase and crime among users fell. Also, contrary to expectations, use of methadone and other non-heroin treatments increased. The public was no longer harassed by drug users or subjected to needles lying around, said Dreifuss.
She added: “The drug issue is still of concern but the broad population is generally satisfied with this policy and has accepted that it has had good results.” Dreifuss acknowledged, however, that her country is “at the end of the pipe” compared with some Latin American and African states, plagued by drug wars and trafficking, which raise a host of other, far more serious, problems.
Steering a middle course
National Drug Coordinator for the Czech Republic Jindrich Voboril made some insightful points on a possible way forward, saying: “All extremes are usually harmful. One extreme is a total legalized market as is the case with alcohol and tobacco and the other extreme is prohibition. “We need to look for something in the middle.” In developing a new global policy there is an urgent need to experiment with different options that are driven by science rather than fear, he said.
During Soviet rule, traditional drugs like heroin and cocaine were not available so Czechoslovakians developed their own product - methamphetamine - the use of which spread quickly around the country. Voboril said this explodes the myth that “if you reduce supply, demand will be reduced.”
“To have a society free of drugs is wishful thinking,” he said. “It’s an extremist idea that will always cause more harm,” he added, stressing the pursuit of pleasure is behind the drive to take drugs. It would be more effective to link all dependency problems together - such as alcohol, tobacco, drug abuse and gambling, etc - and find common solutions. “Studies show that 2-3 percent of the population is in danger of developing addictive personalities”, he said, and research also shows that the younger people are when they experiment with drugs, the more likely they are to develop addictions.
The Czech Republic has pursued a middle road where drug possession (in small amounts) results in a nominal fine but not incarceration. “We found that nothing horrible happened,” Voboril said. Also, taking its cue from Switzerland, Holland and England, the country introduced harm-reduction services that shifted the focus away from incarceration towards public health. Now, unlike Russia and other former Soviet countries, its HIV rates have dropped below 1 percent and Hepatitis C infections have dropped significantly too.
“We smell a paradigm shift”
Dreifuss said leaders had a moral responsibility to protect the health and safety of all their citizens. Others said that while leaders may not buy into the “moral argument” of protecting all its citizens from harm - drug users are highly stigmatized in many countries including Russia - they should respond to the clear economic benefits of programmes that balance public health concerns with those of safety.
Architect of the Czech Republic’s drug policy and Global Commission member Pavel Bém said the new drug policy must bring more benefits than negatives, and current drug policy is doing the opposite. “If you analyse drug policies around the world, there are many unintended negative consequences,” he said, adding that many of these are cost-related. “The people spending years in jail to no effect are not the dealers in organized crime but the users.”
Experts are watching the path of decriminalizing recreational marijuana that Uruguay and two US states - Washington and Colorado - are pursuing. Director of OSF’s Global Drug Policy Program and panel moderator Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch said while the US may be resistant to change at the federal level, the fact that two states had legalized marijuana, with others likely to follow suite, meant that “it can’t be taken seriously pushing prohibition if it has these states in its borders”.
Bém added: “We smell a paradigm shift. We are at the beginning of change. We don’t know how long it will take and what it will be at the end but we can see that it is changing,” he said.