Every war has its motivation, its excuse. If authorities want to continue fighting against enemies, they need to keep justifying themselves. In a democracy, this means that they have to criminalize the people they fight against, to make sure that these people are not considered as "respectable" citizens. If authorities want to continue spending millions of tax money in operations that end up destroying people’s lives, they have to contradict any "respectable" arguments that may motivate these people’s behaviour. The war against drugs is no exception to this rule. Before waging a war against coca or opium growers in some of the least developed countries in the world, authorities need to describe them as accomplices of drug traffickers or terrorists. Before persecuting drug users and forcing them to sell their bodies and commit crimes in order to survive, authorities need to prove that people take drugs to poison instead of trying to cure themselves. In this way, a public image arises according to which illegal drugs are causing damage to society, and all the authorities are doing is to try and stop it from happening. This public image of the drugs issue is so strong, that many people, even those who fight for a world based on justice and respect, have difficulties seeing through it. It is as if speaking on drugs, mentioning the word drugs, already scares people off. Nobody doubts that drug use may (better: cause problems). However, when we are afraid to speak about (these problems), it is very unlikely that we will come nearer to a solution for (them).
During the past decade, most European countries have started an process towards a modernisation of drug policy. In the circles of political, legal and health authorities that deal with the issue in Europe, it is now well understood that persecution of drug users is counterproductive. Like tightrope walkers, authorities are balancing on the tension between the law, which is still designed to obtain a reduction of drug demand, and its application, where this goal has been replaced by a reduction of drug related harm. Measures like needle exchange, the establishment of safe injection rooms and the decriminalisation of cannabis consumption have been successful in improving living conditions of users and reducing the spread of HIV and other bloodborne diseases throughout almost the entire European Union. The opposition against these measures in places where they are implemented tends to disappear after some time when most people acknowledge their effectiveness. At that point, nobody seems to care very much about the fact that these measures are strictly spoken in open contradiction with the UN Conventions, and come routinely under criticism by the UN’s watchdog, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.
It is expected that this process will lead to the improvement of life conditions in producing areas, which again will make the population less vulnerable to incentives from the black market. Establishment of basic health care and education facilities, measures to avoid environmental damage and mechanisms to ensure food security, fair prices and market access for any products, also including legal outlets for plants like coca, cannabis and opium, will contribute to a rationalization of drug production.
Regulation of the market will also act to counter the intervention of unscrupulous middlemen with measures that protect the interests of producers and consumers. These can include quality control in places of consumption, accurate information on prices and quality to producers and consumers, and methods of controlled distribution. Countries, which decide to allow the distribution of drugs could do this either through the public provision or through the private market. But it seems obvious that social, health and criminal justice authorities should be supervising the drug trade, and special limitations (with regards to advertising or sale to minors, for instance) should be maintained.
Access to drugs that present significant risks to the user should be controlled in one way or another. Drugs with a greater potential for harmful use must be more tightly regulated. However, this regulatory scheme should not be so restrictive as to produce a significant illegal market in the substance. Once a significant illicit trade in a substance appears, we can be sure that our policy is a failure and bound to contribute to, rather than minimize the harms of the commerce and use of that substance. Therefore, the lack of impact of the current UN Conventions is best illustrated by today’s dimension of the illegal drugs industry.
Finally, it is necessary to make a well-defined distinction between problematic and non-problematic consumption. Of course neither of the two should be considered a crime. Instead, all efforts to prevent and treat the problems that may arise as a consequence of drug use should aim at promoting the well being of drug users and their surroundings, including measures to prevent diseases and guarantee access to all treatment. Consumers should be encouraged to maintain their use at a moderated level, and discouraged to increase it. Prevention campaigns should aim at encouraging responsible and informed attitudes towards drug consumption.
Regulation would not bring us a drug-free world. But it would improve the living conditions of millions of people, while attacking the interests of some of the world’s largest criminal strongholds.
You will find the views and experiences of researchers, policy makers, front-line workers and drug users. Druglink reviews relevant publications, and lists new books, videos and events to keep you up to date with the latest literature, resources, courses and conferences.
is published by DrugScope, the UK NGO on drug issues. Working closely with
service providers and agencies across the drugs field, DrugScope is one
of the leading centres for applied research on drug issues in the UK. Increasingly
involved in policy analysis, DrugScope has been calling for a thorough
evaluation and review of the UN drug conventions. The articles included
in the special supplement are part of these efforts in linking domestic
work with an international agenda.
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