Is the End of the War on Drugs Around the Corner?
Will the UNGASS 2016 Ring In a New Age In Drug Policy?
Is the war on drugs coming to an end? That is certainly a bold statement. Before we all start busting out those secret weed stashes and dreaming of enjoying our favourite cannabis strains whilst down the pub with mates, it is unfortunately not that simple. The Lancet, one of the world's most respected medical journal's has issued a report backing the decriminalisation of all drugs, not just cannabis and a move to change policies, focusing on harm reduction rather than jail time for drug use. When you consider this report was established and written with input from professionals in a wide range of disciplines covering low, medium and high-income countries, well you know what they say; you can't argue with the experts.
Setting the Scene
Whilst it is not just a simple yes or no answer there is a fast approaching light at the end of a tunnel credited with some pretty shocking failures. In this case, the tunnel we refer to is the prohibition of drugs and the criminalization of its possession and use. The aim of the report was to provide counsel to the U.N (United Nations) before their General Assembly where they will discuss drug policy within its member countries. Considering the last time drug policy was discussed within the U.N was 1998, times have changed drastically with no visible reduction in drug use around the globe and in many countries jail populations continue to grow. Given the apparent lack of success in combating worldwide drug use, this report presents an alternative approach. Rather than removing drug use from the world altogether, the theme for the U.N's meeting in 1998, it focuses on managing drug use and helping people to manage drug addiction ultimately removing their dependence on it.
Before we look at the details of a “harm reduction” style policy and the recommendations of the report it's worth reviewing how the current policies have affected the world and whether they have been effective in any capacity. In 1998 when U.N member states declared their commitment to a drug-free world they estimated that 8 million people had used heroin in the previous year worldwide, whilst cannabis had racked up a total of around 135 million users. When they then came to review their progress 10 years later in 2008 both those figures had risen. 12 million estimated heroin users and now 165 million cannabis users worldwide. So if the total number of drug users was estimated to have increased, how did those 10 years impact drug users and the global population?
The report presents some fairly harrowing statistics when looking at the detrimental effect the current policies have had. Since 2006 when Mexico decided to use their military to help combat drug trafficking they have seen a “striking increase in homicides”, adding “it has been so great that it reduced life expectancy in the country.” It is difficult to see the effectiveness of this strategy, given the aim was to prevent the “grave threat to the health and well-being of mankind” that drugs were declared to have. Their efforts in this scenario lowered the life expectancy of its population on top of any effect that drugs and addiction would have been having.
In the USA, which now accounts for roughly 5% of the world's population, there is the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Roughly 707 people per 100 000 population. Of those incarcerations, drug offences account for a substantial amount, with nearly 50% of all federal inmates serving time for these drug-related offences. Combined with the fact that African American men have a 32% of being in prison at some point in their lives the alienating effect that extreme drug laws have can only be destructive in helping tackle substance abuse and addiction. Families, friends and support networks can be put under tremendous stress when dealing with such high level of imprisonment, often turning to resentment of law enforcement and government establishments.
These statistics make for stark viewing and as such the wheels have begone to turn. Fast forward to today and this report couldn't have been published at a better time. In April this year (2016), a United Nations General Assembly will take space to discuss global drug policy. At the request of Mexico, Columbia, and Guatemala, the general assembly will look at the progress it's made in the war against drugs whilst openly discussing opportunities. This growing call from Latin American countries is in unison to recent drug policy changes in individual countries. Uruguay has become the first country to have a nationally regulated cannabis market for recreational use, whilst states in the US have taken a similar approach, like Colorado.
When you consider that the Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon of the UN has called for all member states to use this meeting as a chance to have an open debate and consider all options it shows a real shift in mindset from within the UN. There are however caveats to these proposed discussions. So far we have a report published by world experts backing a different approach to tackling drug use and we also have some of the UN's own members calling for a chance to review current policies, what could possibly remain as a blocker?
The problem lies in the fact that the United nations does not directly prohibit or regulate drugs, it acts as an overseer, laying out global goals and policies to benefit countries and improve the quality of life globally. Whilst one country may want adopt harm reduction policies other's may not. These countries are at liberty, to a degree, to tackle and dictate punishments for drug offences at their own will. Countries like the US have long maintained a zero-tolerance approach to drug use, whilst other major players like Russia and several Asian and Middle Eastern countries are also opposed to the changes. The UN works on the basis of the majority of member states agreeing but with so many of its major members currently unwilling to adopt a change in policy this harm reduction movement can come swiftly to a stop. At its core internal departments of the UN are leaning towards this change in approach, the challenge will ultimately boil down to whether its members can see through their zero tolerance tinted glasses and look to understand how drug use and addiction can be tackled at the root, without the use of force or imprisonment.
So we've seen the impact that the current drug policy's have had on significant global powers, but what are the actual recommendations of the Lancet report? How can we improve the quality of life whilst tackling addiction?
11 recommendation are made in total but the two most notable or significant for cannabis users are
“Decriminalise minor drug offences- use,possession and petty sale”
“Better and broader research on drugs and drug policy”
There is already prominent research into the beneficial effects cannabis or more specifically the cannabinoids within cannabis has on numerous physical and mental ailments. Stories of the RSO oil (Rick Simpson Oil) and its curative abilities, backed up by users worldwide are one of many that spring to mind. Further studies looking at how cannabis use can help to manage chronic pain and improve the quality of life for its users has also been conducted. There is however so much more that needs to understood about the different effects cannabinoids have on our bodies. With a recommendation of 'broader and better research' the hope would be that governments would start to look at the beneficial properties of certain drugs, rather than further proving the negative impact they can have.
The decriminalisation of minor drugs would also help to remove the stigma that surrounds cannabis and its use. Many users report using it to help with a whole host of conditions and helping to manage pain as a result of things like chronic arthritis. These users are not dealing cannabis or operating on the basis of making a profit but simply trying to benefit from the properties cannabis offers them. Currently, in the eyes of the law, these people are criminals. This criminalisation will undoubtedly put so many more people off trying cannabis and how it could potentially help them to improve their quality of life.
This report and the recommendations put forward offer a new approach to a clearly failing attempt at preventing drug use and addiction. Whilst the recommendations offer some potential benefits to the everyday cannabis user, the repercussions are bigger than that. By shifting the focus from completely removing drug use in society, you remove the need for this type of negative research to be conducted. It only serves as a means to justify the sometimes heavy-handed approach adopted by some countries in tackling drug use and abuse. Essentially you end up in a destructive cycle with neither the government nor the people it governs seeing any real benefit. Whilst still being a long way from seeing a change of approach to the war on drugs this report represents the view of professionals from all sectors from across the globe, it provides a much needed beacon to which the U.N can hopefully use to guide them towards a strategy that focuses on reducing the demand for drugs rather than reducing the supply. Having less of something does not remove peoples need for it, especially with addiction.
Increased numbers of non-violent drug users face prison time under current drug policies. Professionals worldwide may hold the answer to a more effective approach to dealing with the war on drugs.
Written by: Lucas
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