Information reported in today’s Sydney Morning Herald about an explosion in “legal highs” relates to the global campaign for governments to recognise that the so-called “war on drugs” has failed and to use evidence-based policy to address the growing harm caused by dangerous drug use. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that backyard developers are using old research papers and patent applications to find slightly different molecular structures and new drugs that are then bought and sold on the Internet. Changing just one carbon of a chemical compound can mean a new drug is developed. Peter Vallely, a special investigator from the Australian Crime Commission, believes only the “very tip” of an explosion in new drugs has been recognised.
Meanwhile, on 2 June this year the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a groundbreaking report at a press conference and teleconference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The global commission’s call for action includes alternatives to incarceration and greater emphasis on public health approaches to drug use, but also decriminalisation and experiments in legal regulation. The commission is the most distinguished group of high-level leaders ever to call for far-reaching changes on drug policy. The group includes former President of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo, former United States Secretary of State George P. Shultz, the Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, many other former and current heads of state and other notable dignitaries, social justice advocates and entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson.
The executive director of the global advocacy organisation Avaaz, meaning “voice”, with its nine million members worldwide, has mounted a campaign in support of the global commission’s recommendations that will be given to the United Nations Secretary General. Last time I checked their petition it numbered 647,773 people. To quote the former President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who is also the commission’s chair:
Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government’s global war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed. Let’s start treating drug addiction as a health issue, reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives and legally regulating rather than criminalising cannabis.
The commission’s recommendations include: ending criminalisation, marginalisation and stigmatisation of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others; encouraging experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs, especially cannabis, to undermine the power of organised crime and safeguard the health and security of citizens; ensuring that a variety of treatment modalities are available, including not just methadone and buprenorphine treatment but also heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada; and applying human rights and harm reduction principles and policies both to people who use drugs as well as those involved in the lower ends of the illegal drug markets such as farmers, couriers and petty sellers.
Why do we need to change the way we manage drug use in our society? Because the way we are managing it clearly is not working. The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and communities around the world. The report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy reveals the increase in use between 1998 and 2008 for cannabis was 8.5 per cent, for opiates it was 34.5 per cent and for cocaine it was 27 per cent. Vast expenditures on criminalisation and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV-AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.
Given the ever-growing body of evidence demonstrating the lack of impact of current drug policies and strategies on the overall scale of illegal drug markets, and the growing awareness of the negative side effects of these strategies on health and social welfare, it could be seen as surprising that most policy makers continue to support the current war on drugs approach. In Western democracies with decades of experience in drug policy design and review most political rhetoric continues to focus on the need to maintain resolve, or to strengthen commitment, or to clamp down on some new drug or pattern of use or supply.
The Global Commission on Drugs believes that there needs to be reform in how we view drug users. Overwhelming evidence from Europe, Canada and Australia now demonstrates the human and social benefits both of treating drug addiction as a health rather than as a criminal justice problem and of reducing reliance on prohibitionist policies. Any progress made in finding better ways of dealing with drug problems has not been by additional prohibition measures but by harm minimisation. What some politicians refer to as “tough on drugs” is actually tough on the victims of drug use, tough on their families, and tough on law enforcement and health budgets. New South Wales should be heeding the informed and science-based approach being advocated by the global commission. We should not only maintain but develop new harm minimisation strategies. We should break the taboo on public debate and reform, scrap the supposedly hardline measures that simply do not work, and admit the phoney war on drugs cannot be won.