Drug law reform isn’t theory anymore – it’s practise

Three years ago, drug law reformers were given their first stamp of approval by the international political establishment. There had been experiments already, some in major European democracies, but nothing quite like this. When the Global Commission on Drugs Policy published its report in 2011, it changed the whole structure of the debate.

Suddenly, drug law reform wasn't the preserve of hippies and libertarians. It was being promoted by former secretary-generals of the UN and former presidents from around the world. A report calling for the end of the war on drugs was being supported by men like Kofi Annan, Richard Branson and former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker. Among its members were ex-presidents of Brazil, Switzerland, Colombia, Poland, Chile, Portugal and Mexico, as well as former US secretary of state George P. Shultz. Finally, drug reformers had this eminently respectable body they could peg their arguments on.

Now, three years later, the commission has published a second report and they've really upped the ante. They're now laying out how drug reform would work in practise.

The foreword says:

"Drug policy reform is moving from the realm of theory to practice. Courageous leaders from across the spectrum are seeing the many political, social and economic dividends from drug policy reform. They recognise the critical mass of voices demanding a new course.

"Informed approaches are trumping ideological ones and the results are encouraging. We recognise that past approaches premised on a punitive law enforcement paradigm have failed, emphatically so. They have resulted in more violence, larger prison populations, and the erosion of governance around the world. The health harms associated with drug use have got worse, not better.

"We are encouraged by the signposts that are emerging that can help governments and citizens take the right steps forward. They have momentum on their side."

There is a point of failure at which even the most conformist and unimaginative mind will realise it is mistaken. And the war on drugs has reached that point.

The numbers are stark and conclusive, as the report demonstrates.

The United Nation Office for Drugs and Crime estimates that the number of drug users worldwide has risen by 18% in just four years, from 203 million in 2008 to 243 million in 2012. Opium production alone has increased by 380% since 1980. The price of heroin in the US fell by 80% in the same period, although its purity has risen.

The number of drugs keeps increasing as chemists slightly alter their composition to stay ahead of the law. There is now no legislative method to effectively counter them. In 2013 the number of new psychoactive substances exceeded the total number of drugs prohibited under the international drug control network.

The illegal drug trade is worth more than the global equivalent for cereals, wine, beer, coffee, and tobacco combined. Data from 2005 put production at £8 billion, wholesale at £58 billion and retail at £204 billion.

Lots of that money finds its way to groups which threaten the stability and integrity of the very states who push for drug prohibition. Paramilitary groups on the Pakistan-Afghan border, for example, gain £31 million a year from it.

Meanwhile the drug war kills the livelihood of normal farmers trying to provide for their families. These are not men of violence. They are men who would abide by the law if it gave them a way to make an income. Approximately 2.6 million acres of Colombian land were aerially sprayed with toxic chemicals as part of an eradication project between 2000 and 2007, wiping out the livelihoods of thousands of families. The number of locations used for illicit coca production actually increased during this period.

That's how it works in the drug war. It's the balloon theory: you squeeze one area, problems emerge somewhere else. It cannot be stopped, because the demand is intrinsic to the human condition.

Kill off one gang leader and many more rise to take his place. A surge of violence follows. In Mexico, the drug war was significantly beefed up in 2006. Deaths spiralled out of control, from 60,000 to over 100,000. The war on drugs kills our children. If it doesn't do it at the end of a military or gang member's gun, it does it by the noose. Thirty-three countries still use the death penalty for drug offences, resulting in around 1,000 executions a year.

Sometimes, it kills our children by refusing them the drugs they need. In 2010, there were over 20,000 illicit-drug overdose deaths in the US. There is a drug called naloxone which can counter the effects of opiate overdose, but it is not made available in many locations. In Russia, over a third of the 1.8 million people who inject drugs are infected with HIV. The state won't countenance the use of needle exchanges and syringe programmes, or opiate substitution programmes.

The war on drugs also provides a mechanism to target women and ethnic minorities. The reason its failures have been allowed to endure for half a century is because it does not touch the elite. The drug abuse of US presidents and British prime minister is a matter for a few hysterical tabloids and dinner party jokes. But for the poor, the black and the female, it is not so funny.

African-Americans make up 13% of the US population, but 33.6% of its drug arrests and 37% of the people in state prison are on drug charges. The same disparity takes place in the UK. More women are imprisoned for drug charges than any other crime. Sixty-eight per cent of the women incarcerated in Argentina are in jail for drugs. The figure is 70% in Costa Rica and 66% in Peru. In Europe, one in four women in jail are there because of drugs.

The scale of the disaster is so great, the effect on security, health and the economy so severe, that many countries have opted to unilaterally turn their back on the UN's drug enforcement bullying and experiment with more liberal approaches.


Twenty-three US states have legal medicinal cannabis markets and 17 have decriminalised personal possession. Washington and Colorado have now created legally regulated markets for non-medicinal cannabis. Spain and Belgium have created activist-led 'cannabis social clubs' which allow for small-scale cultivation for personal use. Last year, Uruguay became the first nation state to create a legal regulated market for cannabis.

Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands have instituted pragmatic approaches to harder drugs like heroin, with needle and syringe programs, opiate substitution treatment, heroin-assisted treatment programs and supervised drug consumption facilities being instituted. Moldova has turned into a world leader on harm reduction approaches, as has Ukraine.

Even the authoritarian states western leaders like to mock, like Iran, Vietnam and China, are well ahead of us when it comes to harm reduction.

In 2001, Portugal removed criminal penalties for the personal possession of all drugs and switched from a criminal justice response to a harm-reduction response based on evidence. It was a remarkable success. The Czech Republic did the same in 2009. Ecuador decriminalised personal possession in 1990 and pardoned many drug mules in 2008. New Zealand is currently permitting the regulated sale of low-risk new legal highs.

The commission report was invaluable during the last three years. It's telling how confident they are now, too. There is a hint of swagger, even. They've gone from saying 'something must change' to mapping out what that should be. Even in the UK, which is traditionally miles behind on this, Nick Clegg has set up a working group building up to the session. The Lib Dems have become increasingly confident in their approach to the issue inside government.

The tide has turned and the momentum is overwhelmingly with drug law reformers ahead of the 2016 United Nations general assembly special session on drugs. Today's report allows individual countries to try out what works. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution. But it lays out five pathways to improving the international drug regime which are comprehensive and complimentary.

Firstly, it demands that health and community safety should be made the priority of governments' drug policies. This means getting rid of the traditional standards of success – the eradication of crops, the seizure of drugs, and the arrests of users – and replacing them with humane and logical alternatives, such as reductions in the number of fatal overdoses, or instances of Aids, HIV or hepatitis.

Secondly, they call for equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medicines, for those suffering avoidable pain, which they estimate to be 85% of the world population.

Thirdly, they want states to stop ruining the lives of young people caught with small amounts of drugs. This has almost no effect on drug use but it pushes people towards dangerous activities like injection. It also eats up public money which could go towards valuable projects which might actually improve people's lives.

Fourthly, the report calls on law enforcement to avoid targeting the farmers and couriers who make up the working class of the drug industry and focus, if they must, on the ruling classes – the gang leaderships. Non-criminal sanctions are proposed. "Subsistence farmers and day labourers involved in harvesting, processing, transporting or trading who have taken refuge in this illicit economy purely for reasons of survival of their families should not be subjected to criminal punishment," it says.

Finally, they call for governments to see how their militarised crack-downs on the drug industry accomplish nothing, with the trade either rising up elsewhere or in the same place by different individuals. "The goals of supply-side enforcement need to be reoriented from unachievable market eradication to achievable reductions in violence and disruption linked to the trafficking," it says. "Enforcement resources should be directed towards the most disruptive, problematic and violent elements of the trade."

Experiments in legally regulated markets, it says, should obviously be encouraged. This can start with cannabis, coca and legal highs. But it should not stop there.

It is a sensible, pragmatic response, from sensible, pragmatic people, to a situation which has spiralled out of control. The momentum is overwhelming. With any luck, it will lay the ground for 2016 and that vital UN special assembly session.