A Shift in the Drug Policy Debate

The US led ‘war on drugs’ initiated in 1971, by then President Richard Nixon still informs the American approach to drug control. Given the global, widespread and complex nature of the problem, many other actors have come to realise that there are alternative ways of dealing with drugs in society, incorporating different strands including harm reduction. For example, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said, ‘the tide is clearly turning. The “war on drugs” strategy has failed’. Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, reiterated that ‘if that means legalizing, and the world thinks that’s the solution, I will welcome it. I’m not against it’. Moreover, former UN Secretary General and member of the Global commission on Drug policy, Kofi Annan said ‘it’s time for governments to change course and avoid drug policies that lead to overcrowded jails’.

The Global Commission on Drug policy has been leading the debate on decriminalisation. In September 2014, the commission released a report reiterating the same call made since June 2011 for the decriminalisation of drugs, including cocaine and heroin. The commission made recommendations which include the need to put an end to spending on counterproductive enforcement measures, while introducing efforts aimed at the reduction of violence, prevention and treatment.

Decriminalisation has been getting further attention by the West Africa Commission on Drugs (WACD), appointed by the Kofi Annan Foundation, which published a report in June 2014, arguing that West Africans governments should decriminalise minor drug offences.

In 2016, the UN General Assembly will convene a Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) to debate the current domestic and international drug policy regime and consider altering its stand on drugs.

‘Decriminalisation’ is a contentious issue. Critics perceive it as a danger to communities as it results in the proliferation of illegal drugs and increased psychotic illnesses. Some argue that decriminalisation does not weaken the domination of the illegal drug industry, but causes a rise in revenue, the supply of drugs with impunity and an increase in disruptive behaviour. A recent Home Office report that examined different approaches to drugs found that criminalisation has been ineffective in deterring use.

Decriminalisation simply means the reduction of penalties associated with the possession and use of relatively small quantities of drugs. Drugs remain illegal; however, the judicial system would not prosecute non-violent drug related offences. The intention is not to have people use drugs with impunity, as advocates of decriminalisation stress the need for fines, drug education and treatment as opposed to incarceration. As pointed out by the West Africa Commission on Drugs report, this approach would ensure law enforcement refocus their attention on pursuing the higher levels of drug trafficking organisations rather than users and low level sellers.

Furthermore, decriminalisation is reinforced by the notion that drugs should be considered within the framework of a need to protect the health and safety of the people. Here, decriminalisation places the responsibility for decreasing drug demand and managing dependence on drugs under the Ministry of Health, rather than the Ministry of Justice. The Global Commission on Drug Policy expects to channel the focus of law enforcement from treating drug-dependent individuals as criminals, to treating them as patients in need of support.

The Global Commission asserts that the incarceration of low level drug users does little or nothing to solve the problem of drug addiction and has no impact on drug trafficking organisations. Most drug trafficking crimes and offences are committed by individuals and groups who are part of professional and organised criminal organisations operating in a global setting. The war on drugs, rather than reduce drugs trafficking and crime, actively fuels it, causing hikes in illicit drugs prices to the benefit of criminal groups, while driving drug-dependent individuals to crime.

Decriminalisation is beginning to have more traction. For example, Portugal (2001), Uruguay (2013) and Jamaica (2014) have all decriminalised some illegal drugs. These countries have seen the risks associated with non-decriminalisation of illegal drugs which threaten to overpower the judicial system and result in over-crowded prisons with no solution to the impending drug related violence. They realised that the reduction of drugs cannot be achieved by meting out harsh penalties to non-violent small time drug dealers. Alternative tactics are needed to provide support to drug-dependent individuals.

Others take the argument further, advocating for the legalisation of drugs, where there would be no penalties associated with drug use and possession except those experimenting in public, since that would take away the profit from the hands of drug traffickers.

Despite the different strands of this debate, the focus is generally on headlines and the potential harm to society or the increased risk of addiction. As we move closer to UNGASS 2016, there is a need to understand the different proposals in more depth to consider what would be the most effective strategy to counter organised crime and drug trafficking organisations rather than disproportionately focusing on those at the bottom of the supply chain.