Global medical experts are trying desperately to legalize drugs so you can live a better life

Global medical experts are trying desperately to legalize drugs so you can live a better life

VicesMarch 25, 2016 By Isabelle Kohn

For the past handful of decades, the global approach to drug enforcement has been heavy-handed, misinformed and wildly ineffective. And now, many trillions of dollars later, no countries have anything to show for the long-waged "war on drugs."

All across our little floating sphere, prisons are overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders, there are rampant HIV and Hepatitis C epidemics from unsafe injection practices, and in industrialized countries, more people are dying because of prescription drug overdoses than from car crashes or gun violence because there is no safe way to access opioids. Jet on over to a developing country like Mexico, and you'll see that homicide rates from drug-related violence are so high that they've actually shaved a few years off life expectancy rates.

Drug abuse rates have held steady throughout this time, but instead of spending time and resources figuring out how to help people with drug addictions, we've thrown all our money and personnel at enforcing a broken system that has never worked and never will.

Based on the performance of such policies, one could easily say that current drug laws harm health and human rights in a far more destructive and systematic way than actual drug use itself does.

All this is a direct result of the misguided way global drug policy has been run. However, a progressive commission of the world's foremost medical experts has realized this, and has gathered in order to convince the UN that a complete reversal of the repressive drug policies most governments have in place is necessary to put an end to the death and disease that criminalization create.

The commission is made up of doctors, scientists and health and human rights experts from around the world who believe that accurate scientific information, not fear, should fuel global drug policy reform.

Arguing that the repressive and often ignorant way most countries handle drug use has been shown to increase violent crime, hasten the spread of disease, and lead to deaths, the committee will attempt to convince the UN that the only way to stop the harm being done by the war on drugs is total decriminalization. In April, it will argue in front of a UN special session on narcotics that drug policies should be reversed, meaning you, us and everyone we know might just be able to tote our rave molly around in peace.

“The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production, and trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national drug laws, but these policies are based on ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded,” said Dr Chris Beyrer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a member of the commission.

The commission's biggest demand is that the UN scale back criminalization of minor, non-violent drug offenses, meaning anything that involves the use, possession and sale of small quantities of narcotics.

In addition, they're also suggesting the following modifications to current drug policy:

  • Military force against drug cartels should be phased out.
  • Police attention should be focused not on recreational drug users, but on violent, armed criminals.
  • Prison sentences for women involved in non-violent crimes who are often exploited as drug “mules” should be minimized.
  • Move gradually towards legal, regulated drug markets which are “not politically possible in the short term in some places” although they predict more countries and US states will move that way, “a direction we endorse."
  • Ensure easy access to clean needles, oral drugs such as methadone to reduce injecting and naloxene, the antidote to overdoses.
  • Stop aerial spraying of drug crops with toxic pesticides.

Well then! That sounds nice, doesn't it?

These demands are very, very different from the ones presented to the UN at the last special session on narcotics. That bad boy was in 1998, and took place under the hilariously maligned slogan, "A drug free world -- we can do it." It called for a total global crackdown on drugs, and urged governments to eliminate drugs through strict bans on possession, consumption, production and trafficking. Real cute.

However, as we know, these prohibitionist drug policies have had serious adverse consequences in both the US and abroad. 

The US in particular could use a good old fashioned drug policy reform, as our current drug laws operate under serious biases that put minorities at horrifically unfair incarceration risks.

“The USA is perhaps the best documented but not the only country with clear racial biases in policing, arrests, and sentencing,” wrote the commissioners.  “In the USA in 2014, African American men were more than five times more likely than white people to be incarcerated for drug offenses in their lifetime, although there is no significant difference in rates of drug use among these populations. The impact of this bias on communities of people of color is inter-generational and socially and economically devastating.”

This is a sentiment conveniently echoed by America's new drug czar, Michael Botticelli, a cool, ex-alcoholic who thinks the war on drugs is bullshit. He's of the same mind as this commission; that drug addicts should be patients, not prisoners, and drug use should be treated through medical intervention, not jail time.

"We can't arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people. Not only do I think it's really inhumane, but it's ineffective and it costs us billions upon billions of dollars to keep doing this," he said in an interview with 60 Minutes.

However, although the US has suffered at the hands of hard-assed drug laws, several US states such as yours truly, Colorado, were cited by the commission as prime examples of how decriminalization could be successful. It also brought up countries such as Portugal and the Czech Republic, both of whom moved towards decriminalization in order to curb HIV epidemics. As a result, both countries saw "significant financial savings, less incarceration, significant public health benefits, and no significant increase in drug use,” according to the commission's report.

Wow. Just wow. To us Americans, the notion of a government making significant moves like decriminalization in order to protect the health of its citizens seems almost mythological or too good to be true. However, as states like Colorado make incremental moves in that direction, the commission is confident that more states will catch on. Hopefully, more and more government leaders will start to realize that legalized drugs would actually benefit them and the people they protect, both financially and in terms of, you know, not killing anyone.

However, massive decriminalization is not likely to go over well with all members of the UN, such as the ultra-conservative Russian Federation, who are vigorously opposed to any reform of current drug regimes. However, as Chris Beryer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Heatlth    told the Guardian, the commission is "cautiously optimistic" that it'll have an impact on the UN meeting.

“UNGASS (the UN special meeting on narcotics) is going to be a real struggle but there are a number of governments and civil society organizations that are really seeing the need for change," he said. “I think this is a moment. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity."