Tue, Mar 26, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Legalization the only viable drug policy to create a safer world

By Ruth Dreifuss, Ernesto Zedillo and Juan Manuel Santos

The market for illicit drugs represents the world’s largest criminal commodity business. With an estimated annual turnover of US$426 billion to US$652 billion, it is approximately one-third the size of the global oil market, and it is controlled by criminals who care little for others’ health, rights and safety. Around the world, drug-related deaths have been surging, rising from 183,500 in 2011 to roughly 450,000 in 2015 — an increase of 145 percent in just four years.

Meanwhile, more than US$100 billion continues to be spent every year in a futile attempt to eradicate the illegal drugs market. Over the past 50 years, many countries have even gone so far as to militarize their response.

However, while some drug cartels have been dismantled, some kingpins brought to justice, and the area under cultivation for cannabis, coca and poppy reduced, these successes have proved only temporary.

Worse, in many cases, the problem has simply been foisted onto other countries, causing a “balloon effect.” For instance, after the early 2000s, coca production declined in Colombia and rose in Peru, only to double back to Colombia in more recent years. Because drug traffickers can adapt and change, progress is always reversible.

The human costs have been nothing short of shocking. According to the Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geography, there were more than 250,000 recorded homicides in Mexico between 2006 and 2017. In the Philippines, there have been as many as 20,000 extrajudicial killings since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in 2016. And in Colombia, many political leaders, policemen, soldiers, judges and prosecutors have been murdered, while coca farmers — mostly poor smallholders — have been caught in the crossfire between the army, paramilitary groups, insurgents and gangs.

Sadly, this level of violence should come as no surprise. When drugs are banned, they are pushed into illegal markets where physical force, intimidation, discrimination and corruption take the place of state-based regulatory tools. Moreover, prohibition exacerbates the health and social harms associated with drugs, by contributing to epidemics of HIV and hepatitis C, overdose deaths, prison overcrowding, stigma and discrimination, poverty and weakening institutions.

It is time for the world to change its approach. The use of psychoactive substances is a risky behavior and managing such risks is a key function of government. That is why the Global Commission on Drug Policy, in its recent report, Regulation: The Responsible Control of Drugs, recommends that governments legalize and regulate all currently illegal drugs.

“Legalization” is often portrayed inaccurately as an intervention by the state to promote drug use. However, what it really means is that authorities acting in the public interest provide a legal framework for the production, distribution and sale of drugs for adult consumption, with appropriate consideration given to the harms associated with each particular substance. It is a policy that specifically addresses the realities of drug use and the presence of drug markets.

As with all regulation, reforms should be implemented incrementally, and guided by evidence of what works and what does not. Different drugs will naturally require different levels of regulation depending on their relative risks, and approaches will vary from one country and locale to another. Whereas cannabis might be sold exclusively in licensed retail stores, pharmaceutical-grade heroin could be made available with a prescription to people who are dependent and for whom other addiction treatments have not worked.

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