In the age of instant information transfer and social media, something as illogical and ludicrous as the War on Drugs cannot be sustained. Government prohibition of psychoactive substances triggers the unrealistic drive to “eradicate” their presence and just ends up being a war on people.
Some of those in government are realizing this and, under public pressure, are decriminalizing aspects of the drug war, most notably seen in cannabis legalization sweeping across the U.S. More politicians and officials are speaking out to say we must change course.
On Monday, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan penned an essay in Spiegel Online where he called for the legalization of drugs. He reiterated many long-known truisms, describing how prohibition brings a far worse danger to humanity than drugs themselves.
“I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more. We all want to protect our families from the potential harm of drugs. But if our children do develop a drug problem, surely we will want them cared for as patients in need of treatment and not branded as criminals.”
The essay comes two months before the UN General Assembly holds a special session on drugs, where Annan says “the world will have a chance to change course.”
He admits that the UN played a pivotal role in encouraging prohibition 50 years ago. The UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961 had the stated purpose to protect the “health and welfare of mankind,” but instead showed how centralized efforts to control behavior bring destruction and misery.
Prohibition has created a “vast, international criminal market in drugs that fuels violence, corruption and instability,” as Annan acknowledges, which amounts to a $330 billion per year industry. The drug war has no effect on the availability of drugs or the demand, yet $100 billion a year is spent on this consistent failure.
Annan even says the war on drugs is a “war on people.”
Punishment of drug users and overcrowded prisons are just some of the ways in which this manifests. Wherever the criminal drug trade is concentrated, violence, and corruption ensue. In 2013 Mexico saw 16,000 murders, many directly linked to drug trafficking.
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“The tendency in many parts of the world to stigmatize and incarcerate drug users has prevented many from seeking medical treatment. In what other areas of public health do we criminalize patients in need of help? Punitive measures have sent many people to prison, where their drug use has worsened. A criminal record for a young person for a minor drug offence can be a far greater threat to their well-being than occasional drug use.”
Accepting that drugs are a reality and that some, like cannabis and psychedelics, have real and proven medical benefits, is necessary for governments to end their war on people.
“First, we must decriminalize personal drug use. The use of drugs is harmful and reducing those harms is a task for the public health system, not the courts. This must be coupled with the strengthening of treatment services, especially in middle and low-income countries.
Second, we need to accept that a drug-free world is an illusion. We must focus instead on ensuring that drugs cause the least possible harm. Harm reduction measures, such as needle exchange programs, can make a real difference. Germany adopted such measures early on and the level of HIV infections among injecting drug users is close to 5 percent, compared to over 40 percent in some countries which resist this pragmatic approach.”
Annan goes on to discuss regulation, public education, and taxation as the next steps, pointing to the decline in cigarette smoking in many countries. He mentions the always-tempting carrot of revenue collection through taxation of drugs, such as the $135 million collected by Colorado last year.
Ideally, these things should not be necessary, but in one sense it provides a real benefit. Instead of buying from an unknown source through unknown middle-men, consumers can purchase from reputable vendors and know exactly what is in their product, as well as the risks.
The story of cannabis shows that fears of wildly increased use after legalization are unfounded.
“Initial trends show us that where cannabis has been legalized, there has been no explosion in drug use or drug-related crime. The size of the black market has been reduced and thousands of young people have been spared criminal records.”
Instead of exacerbating problems, legalization alleviates them.
“Scientific evidence and our concern for health and human rights must shape drug policy. This means making sure that fewer people die from drug overdoses and that small-time offenders do not end up in jail where their drug problems get worse. It is time for a smarter, health-based approach to drug policy.”
Let’s hope that Kofi Annan’s message resonates with those attending the UN special session on drugs April 19-21. The war on drugs is a failure, an affront to human rights, and a catalyst for violence. The war on people must end.