Throughout the world the predominant approach to the use of illicit drugs is to criminalize those who use and/or possess them—despite evidence that such an approach carries with it devastating health harms and human rights abuses, whilst failing to suppress drug use. But by its own metrics, global drug policy centered around prohibition has been a complete failure. In 2003 an estimated 185 million people had used an illicit substance in the previous year, increasing to 271 million people by 2017. Manufacturing of cocaine is the highest since records began. And whilst opium production fell by 25% in 2017, this followed a jump in production of 65% between 2016 and 2017; the fall in production was linked to overproduction in previous years and a drought in Afghanistan—it had little to do with the impact of law enforcement. Moreover, the huge financial profits that can be made from the illicit drug trade are fueling violence and corruption in many parts of the world.
Drug policy has the potential to limit such violence and reduce harm. But the enforcement of drug prohibition is a policy model associated with a significant rise in the global prison population and prison overcrowding, as well as undermining the health of people who use drugs.
INN supports a smart on drugs approach instead of a war on drugs:
- Invest in harm reduction and treatment services. Such services are cost-effective and offer “good value for money”; it is estimated that for every $1(USD) invested in drug treatment there is a $4 to $7(USD) in social return.
- Decriminalize use, possession and other low-level, personal-use activities. 29 countries and 49 jurisdictions have ended criminal sanctions for possession of either all drugs or for cannabis. When possession of drugs is no longer treated as a criminal offense, and where there is investment in harm reduction and treatment, it can have a profound and positive effect on health, social and economic outcomes. The Czech Republic and Portugal have both ended criminal sanctions for possession of all drugs, invested in harm reduction and treatment, and have some of lowest rates of drug related deaths in Europe. Evidence also demonstrates that ending criminal sanctions for drug possession offences can reduce re-offending rates and reduce the burden on law enforcement.
- Alternatives to punishment for other drug-related offences. Diversion schemes for those engaged low-level activities have been emerging in policing contexts. Such schemes tend to put people in contact with workers who can help to identify and address the underlying reasons for their criminal activities or sign post them to services that can assist, like drug treatment services. A good example is the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in the US, an INN partner.
- Proportional sentencing. In many countries, drug offenses are sentenced more harshly than violent offenses, including rape. The non-violent nature of most transactions within the drugs market should mean that people are not incarcerated, or at the very minimum are not serving long sentences that are comparable to violent crimes. Mandatory minimums for drug offenses should also be abolished, in recognition that this can lead to people who are the very bottom of the drugs market, and often dependent on drugs, end up serving extremely long sentences.
- Legal regulation of scheduled drugs. The illegal market largely exists because scheduled drugs are not available legally. Uruguay, many US States and Canada have regulated the production, supply and possession of cannabis for recreational use. Early evidence from these markets are that use of the drug does not increase amongst adolescents, arrests fall dramatically, taxes derived from the market can be spent on other important societal functions such as education and drug treatment, and job opportunities are created. A number of States in the US have also developed “social equity” programs, which seek to repair the damage of the War on Drugs for communities that have been most impacted: expungement of criminal records for previous cannabis offenses; priority licensing for communities most damaged by prohibition; and financial and technical assistance to navigate the new legal frameworks supporting people to set up their own businesses in the cannabis market.
INN’s full brief on smart drug policy can be downloaded here.