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Experts urge for change in global drug policy after evidence shows 'War on Drugs' has been detrimental to human health and rights

War on Drugs

(NaturalNews) The War on Drugs has been a colossal failure. That is the implications of a major new report by The Lancet and John Hopkins University, which found that 50 years of restrictive drug policies have had "serious detrimental effects" on human rights and public health.

Based upon the results of the study, the Commission deemed that the War on Drugs has caused gratuitous suffering, failed to prevent drug use, increased violence and enabled the spread of epidemics like HIV and hepatitis C through dirty needles.

On the other side of the table, the report found that the decriminalization of non-violent minor drug offenses in countries like Portugal and the Czech Republic provided several public health benefits, saved money and reduced the rate of incarceration without increasing the rate of drug use.

War on Drugs fuels disease outbreak

Approximately 22 experts from developed and developing nations contributed to the report, which was published on the eve of a special session of the United Nations centered on illegal narcotics. The experts called for a complete repeal of oppressive drug laws by most governments.

"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," Commissioner Chris Beyrer, MD, MPH, an epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a press release.

"The global 'war on drugs' has harmed public health, human rights and development. It's time for us to rethink our approach to global drug policies, and put scientific evidence and public health at the heart of drug policy discussions," he added.

The report was published before a significant United Nations General Assembly Special Session on April 19, which will focus on global drug policy. Countries where efforts to curb drug violence have failed, including Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, requested the special session, encouraging the UN to "conduct an in-depth review analysing all available options," according to Star2.com.

After reviewing the impact drug policies had on public health, the Commission found that excessive incarceration and ostracization of "drug addicts" were the foremost contributors to increased rates of infection. In particular, the Commission discovered a link between longer prison sentences and higher rates of hepatitis C infection among drug users.

Discriminatory drug laws and sentencing make drug use worse

The adverse impact that drug policies have had on human health extends beyond prison cells. The Commission revealed that strict drug policies increase the risk of death from overdose by limiting the availability of medications like naloxone, which can counter the effects of overdose.

"Approximately 11% of people who used illicit drugs worldwide are classed as problematic drug users," explained Commissioner Professor Adeeba Kamarulzaman of the University of Malaya in Malaysia, as quoted by The Lancet. "But the idea that all drug use is necessarily 'abuse' means that immediate and complete abstinence has been seen as the only acceptable approach. In countries and regions where opiate substitution therapy remains unavailable or is not provided to scale, HIV and hepatitis C epidemics continue to expand. Furthermore, continued criminalization of drug use fuels HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis transmission within prisons and the community at large. There is another way. Programmes and policies aimed at reducing harm should be central to future drug policies."

Furthermore, the report noted that drug policies have been applied in a racial and discriminatory manner. For instance, fresh estimates indicate that prisoners in Mexico are more likely to be afflicted by torture and abuse in wake of the government's decision to exercise military force against drug dealers in 2006. The mass incarceration of African Americans and Hispanics for non-violent drug crimes has shattered several families and communities as well.

"The idea of reducing harm is central to public policy in so many areas from tobacco and alcohol regulation to food or traffic safety," said Commissioner Dr. Joanne Csete from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. "But when it comes to drugs, standard public health and scientific approaches have been rejected. Worse still, by dismissing extensive evidence of the health and human rights harms of drug policies, countries are neglecting their legal responsibilities to their citizens. Decriminalization of non-violent minor drug offenses is a first and urgent step in a longer process of fundamentally re-thinking and re-orienting drug policies at a national and international level. As long as prohibition continues, parallel criminal markets, violence and repression will continue."

Treating drug use as a health issue instead of a crime issue

In Portugal, where all drugs were decriminalized in 2001, the possession and use of small amounts of drugs is regarded as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. Despite fears to the contrary, HIV transmission and drug overdoses have actually dropped in the country, particularly among teens and young adults. In addition, the use of "legal highs" like synthetic marijuana and bath salts is lower in Portugal, since citizens don't have to substitute real drugs with synthetically manufactured chemicals, according to The Independent.

The Commission's recommendations included:
  • Governments should invest in comprehensive HIV, TB and hepatitis C services for people who use drugs.
  • Reduce prison sentences for women accused of non-violent crimes who are often coaxed into transporting illegal drugs by swallowing them or concealing them in a body cavity.
  • Introduce legal cannabis into the drug market.
  • Ease "over-zelous drug control policies" that limit access to pain medications for legitimate clinical reasons.
  • End aerial spraying of drug crops with noxious pesticides.
The report concluded that scientific evidence on oppressive drug policies is lacking. The last UN special session over drugs occurred in 1998 under the motto "a drug-free world – we can do it." The session vowed to eradicate all drugs not sold by Big Pharma, urging governments to ban the use, holding, manufacturing and proliferation of various narcotics.

Norman Lamb, a British Liberal Democrat politician and solicitor, told The Guardian that he was in favor of The Lancet commission's conclusions: "The war on drugs has failed and it is Liberal Democrat policy to decriminalise the personal possession and use of all drugs, and introduce a regulated, legalised market for cannabis. Drug use should be treated as a health issue, not as a criminal issue."

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