Punitive drug policies don't work | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 19, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:18 PM, December 19, 2018

Punitive drug policies don't work

Naomi Burke-Shyne, Executive Director of Harm Reduction International, an international NGO “dedicated to reducing the negative health, social and legal impacts of drug use and drug policy”, talks to The Daily Star's Moyukh Mahtab (over e-mail) about the global failure of wars on drugs, and how a health-based approach to drug policy could save lives and promote the well-being of citizens.

Wars on drugs seem to be the most popular approach among governments in tackling drug abuse—we have seen that in the US, in Latin American countries, in the Philippines and in Bangladesh. Yet, many—you included—have pointed out such approaches simply do not yield results. Could you explain what leads you to that conviction?

The “war on drugs” is a failure by its own metrics. For decades, we've seen countries enforce heavy-handed crackdowns in order to achieve “drug-free” societies. And yet, data from the United Nations shows that drug production and use continue to increase.

Not only are these policies a complete failure, they have severely harmed societies throughout the world. Every year there are countless preventable deaths from overdose, HIV and hepatitis C, because of punitive drug laws. This says nothing of the myriad human rights abuses committed in the name of drug control, including people forcibly detained and tortured because of their drug use, or executed for drug offences, a violation of international human rights law.

It is important to highlight that the so-called war on drugs is becoming more isolated as an approach. Fewer governments now opt for scorched-earth tactics to tackle the drug trade. Punitive drug laws are still dominant across the world, but there is increasing interest in grounding drug policies in health and human rights to help build safer communities.

Ultimately, though, most governments continue to state that their tough policies are protecting communities from the “scourge” of drugs—in fact, all they are doing is putting the health and lives of their citizens at risk and tearing families apart.

You have written before that mass criminalisation or death penalties for drug offences often target “the poor and the most vulnerable” and have little effect on consumption or trafficking. Could you elaborate?

It's well recognised among policymakers, academics, UN agencies and others that there is no evidence that the death penalty has any unique deterrent effect on drug trafficking or use. In every country that still has this practice, the drug trade (and drug use) persists, and in some cases is intensifying.

Iran is a good example in this case. The country was once one of the most prolific executioners in the world of people convicted for drug offences, and still had high levels of drug use and dependence. Senior government officials eventually admitted that implementing the death penalty for drugs was not having a deterrent effect and took actions to change the law. As this reform is being rolled out, we're now seeing a significant reduction in the number of executions carried out for drug offences (over 90 percent from 2017 to 2018).

In terms of those most affected by the death penalty and harsh drug policies, the evidence clearly shows that the most vulnerable people suffer the heaviest burden. People from poorer backgrounds can rarely afford legal defence when they are accused of drug offences. This contributes to violations of due process rights, and can often lead to unfair trials. In these circumstances, public officials pursue prosecutions to show the public they are taking action on drugs, no matter how futile or unjust this may be.

Finally, it needs to be recognised that those from poorer backgrounds who do become involved in the drug trade are not doing so out of malice. This is in many cases a choice driven by economic hardship, limited work opportunities, and the need to provide for their families. As is often the case with issues related to drugs, it is not actually about the drugs themselves—it is about people, community and society, and is often tied to poverty, power and socio-economic issues.

An alternative approach to drug policy is to treat it as a social and healthcare issue, rather than a criminal issue. Is that a possible solution towards tackling drug abuse?

Absolutely. Everybody wants healthier, safer communities. In treating drug use (and dependence) as a criminal issue, governments are actively undermining public safety and contributing to health crises like the ones I have already talked about.

The majority of people who use drugs won't experience problems related to their use; however, there are a small number who do and it is well recognised among UN agencies, academics and some governments that providing health and social services for this population is beneficial for the rest of society. There is an enormous amount of evidence showing that health-based interventions that reduce harm related to drug use save governments money, improve public health and contribute to safer communities.

This is not a radical approach, and governments can begin to shift toward it quite easily, as some already have done. A first step would be to begin redirecting money from ineffective drug law enforcement spending, to health-based services for people who use drugs. Almost USD 100 billion a year is spent on drug law enforcement. Our research shows that redirecting just a fraction of this money could dramatically improve public health and achieve development goals.

Governments have to stop demonising people who use drugs and treating this issue in a silo. Everything about the dominant punitive approach to drugs is harming the rest of society.

What are possible alternatives, policy-wise, in combating drug abuse in society? Are there examples globally which have been known to work better than others?

Any approach to drugs has to be based on protecting health and human rights. It's not about combating drug misuse—it is about respecting people as human beings.

Removing criminal sanctions for drug use brings better health and economic outcomes, as Portugal's experience shows. The country's model is not perfect, but evidence shows that this policy shift reduced negative health effects related to drug use and dependence and saved the state money. Importantly, levels of drug use did not go up after the reform, another indication of the ineffectiveness of punitive policies.

Countries that still retain the death penalty for drug offences must abolish this practice. It's heartening to see Malaysia's recent announcement that it will move toward total abolition of the death penalty—a decision spurred by an unjust conviction against someone for drugs—because of its ineffectiveness as a deterrent. Globally, there is a noticeable trend toward abolition or lessening use of the death penalty, and hopefully more countries will follow suit.

Ultimately, countries have to acknowledge that the evidence is firmly stacked against punitive drug policies. If governments want to genuinely improve the health and wellbeing of their societies, they have to move toward sensible, rights-based approaches to drugs.

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