Leading Health Experts Call on the World to Admit Prohibition's Failures and Decriminalize Drugs

Mar 24 2016

Leading Health Experts Call on the World to Admit Prohibition’s Failures and Decriminalize Drugs

March 24th, 2016

The prestigious British medical journal The Lancet and Johns Hopkins University have partnered to produce a new report that injects a serious dose of respectability into the drug-decriminalization movement.

Pegging the release of their report to April’s UN drugs summit, the Johns Hopkins-Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health explains how prohibition’s monopoly on drug policy eschews science and damages communities across the globe. Health experts in the report call for drug decriminalization, advocating a new, evidence-based approach instead. In short, the academic elite have entered the battle for drug policy reform.

“The Commission is concerned that drug policies are often colored by ideas about drug use and dependence that are not scientifically grounded,” the report states. “The 1998 UNGASS declaration, for example, like the UN drug conventions and many national drug laws, does not distinguish between drug use and drug misuse.” That year, UNGASS convened under the message: “A drug-free world—we can do it!” As the report notes, a drug-free world is far from the current reality.

Instead, The Lancet explains, criminalization has exacerbated the harms associated with drug use. The black market for illegal drugs is not only violent, but hazardous to users who may overdose as a result of shifting purity levels. Infectious disease spreads when harm reduction services like supervised injection facilities are considered tacit endorsements of drug use. The intergenerational mass incarceration associated with zero-tolerance policies is not only racially discriminatory but “socially and economically devastating.”

“Gender and racial biases have pronounced overlap, resulting in an intersectional threat to women of colour and their children, families, and communities,” The Lancet explains. Incarceration of drug-users also exacerbates the spread of infectious disease. In Thailand, the report says, “an estimated 56% of incident HCV infection could occur in prison.”

Drug control efforts focused on crop eradication also have direct and severe consequences on communities targeted: The chemicals sprayed have caused miscarriage, as well as respiratory and dermatological disorders.

Noting that the US government, as the primary funder for research into drugs and drug policy, has heavily influenced assumptions about drugs, the Commission points to “an urgent need to bring the best of non-ideologically-driven health science, social science, and policy analysis to the study of drugs and the potential for policy reform.”

Citing “real-life” examples of alternatives to the drug war in countries like Switzerland, Canada, and Portugal, the Commission offers a lengthy list of recommendations for reforms that would improve public health. These include decriminalization and de-militarization, harm reduction services like syringe exchange and supervised injection sites, and ensuring availability of treatment for people with drug dependence and infectious diseases.

The commission recommends allowing more actual health experts into this realm, and even advocates to ensure access to controlled drugs and give the World Health Organization “the resources to assist the International Narcotics Control Board in using the best science to determine the level of need for controlled drugs in all countries.”

As advocates for reform have been saying for years, leave a health issue up to health professionals. In other words, just admit it: Prohibition has failed.

“True to the stated goals of the international drug-control regime, it is possible to have drug policy that contributes to the health and wellbeing of humankind, but not without bringing to bear the evidence of the health sciences and the voices of health professionals,” the report concludes.