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Illicit Drugs Are Not the Only Problem — It’s Outdated Drug Policy That Needs Fixing

Next week the United Nations is convening the largest gathering on drug policy that the world has seen in two decades. It was the brainchild of three Latin American presidents — from Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico — who wanted to end decades of poorly conceived and executed counter-narcotics programs. Their hope was that the General Assembly Special Session, or UNGASS, would stimulate new thinking on ways to reverse the political, social and economic wreckage of a failed war on drugs.

The hopes of these presidents — and like-minded governments and civil societies — were scuttled from the start. Part of the problem is that the framing of UNGASS is backwards. Rather than focusing on the “world drug problem” as prohibitionists are want to do, we should instead be addressing the “problematic way we deal with drugs.” Formulated this way, it is then possible to have a genuinely “people-centered” approach to drug policy that actually improves lives rather than destroys them.

Think about it. If drugs alone are treated as “the problem” (as is currently the case), then we are lost. No one disagrees that drugs can be addictive and can negatively impact health and well-being. But drugs on their own are not the right starting point. The better way to think about this is how we, as governments and societies, choose to deal with drugs. The extent to which public authorities prohibit or regulate drugs will determine the problematic impacts — on individuals, families, and communities — that result.

For fifty years, certain governments have advanced a punitive approach that treats “drugs” as the problem. They have harshly punished producers, penalized traffickers, and criminalized users. In the process, the security architecture of these same countries and their partners has swollen dramatically. Militarized counter-narcotics programs multiplied, law enforcement agencies expanded, and prison systems ballooned uncontrollably. Inflated bureaucracies that focus obsessively on drugs generate unproductive expenditures, destroying livelihoods in the process.

Making matters worse, heavy-handed law and order approach to drug policy havereinforced the power of drugs cartels. Criminal groups from Colombia and Mexico to Afghanistan and Nigeria are adopting increasingly brutal tactics to manage the production, trade and retail of prohibited substances. As states went to war against them, drug trafficking organizations responded in-kind. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians have been killed and maimed in the process, and millions more displaced and rendered destitute. Across parts of Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, hard-core drug users retreated into the shadows to avoid the strong arm of the state, further perpetuating health crises around the world.

The idea that “drugs” (as opposed to errant policies) are the problem is one of the principle failings of the current UNGASS outcome document. It is also held up as orthodoxy by a disproportionately influential UN agency — the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In a recent attempt to counter criticism of UNGASS, UNODC chief Yury Fedotov penned a letter describing the drug problem and his office’s attempts to improve the situation. While professing a more balanced and compassionate approach to drug policy, his prescriptions are fundamentally flawed precisely because of how his organization conceives the issue. This is hardly surprising since UNODC by definition links drugs with crime.

It is worth considering Mr. Fedotov´s letter in detail. In describing the opportunities presented by UNGASS, he immediately hones in on the “serious problems” associated with opium production, the “deadly” properties of psychoactive substances, the “ravages” of heroin and the “risks” of cocaine production. He highlights the “pervasive violence” associated with illicit drugs that “bludgeons countries and communities” before linking drug traffickers with terrorists. He concludes that health-based responses must be coupled with law enforcement to deal with illicit drug supplies. He laments the fact that “hotspots” are growing despite decades of UNODC investment to reduce the availability of drugs.

Yet it is not just the drugs that can cause ill effects, but rather the ways in which UN member states have elected to deal with them. The position of some government is to ban all drugs outright, and in the process link producers, traffickers and consumers with crime and, now, terror. But as repeated UNODC reports have shown, drugs continue to be abundant and policies continue failing. Unless governments can acknowledge the flawed emphasis on “the drug problem” — and this wording is enshrined in the 1961 Narcotics Convention, the 1971 Conventionand the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances — the health, human rights and well-being of mankind will suffer.

The UNODC director is right when he says that the UNGASS process is “strongly connected to the real lives of people.” He then adds, as if an afterthought, that “we should not lose sight of this fact.” How isn’t this obvious? This statement reveals the central bias of prohibition — the focus is on drugs, and not people. Whether UNODC likes it or not, the only way we are going to put people first is if we start a serious and informed conversation about regulating drugs. The good news is that over a dozen countries (including the U.S.) are already introducing regulatory practices and legislation to ensure a more humane, public health- and rights-based approach than those advocated in the past. Reason will prevail, even if the interests of the few would prefer it otherwise.

By Fernando Henrique Cardoso, chair of the GlobalCommission on Drug Policy, and former President of Brazil

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