Belfast Telegraph

Heralding a new strategy in our failed war on drugs

By John Collins

The release of the Home Office Drugs: International Comparators report represents a major opening up of the UK drug policy debate. For the first time there is the possibility that far-reaching reform might become part of the mainstream political discourse.

Far from being unique, however, the UK report is part of an escalating shift in the global drug policy terrain.

For decades governments around the world have pursued, with varying degrees of severity, a "war on drugs" as a means to manage the drug issue. The war is based on the premise that a repressive prohibitionist model is the best means to manage drug use in society. The evidence tells a very different story.

The Home Office report is an acknowledgement of something else widely known but rarely acknowledged by governments: there is no evidence that criminalising drug use has any effect on consumption rates.

At the same time there is a very substantial body of evidence highlighting the highly detrimental impacts of criminalisation on public health.

Criminalisation contributes to the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C; it increases the risk of overdose and death; it ostracises people from vital public health and social welfare services; and it confers criminal records on people who don't deserve them.

It is for this reason that, earlier this year, the World Health Organisation called for the blanket decriminalisation of all drug use. The direction in which international public health policy is heading is pretty clear.

Drug use is increasingly - and correctly - being recognised as a public health issue, not a criminal justice one.

The choice now is between maintaining the broken status quo or pursuing policies that facilitate economic development, protect public health and ensure respect for human rights.

Many states are pushing ahead unilaterally with new approaches, as in the case of cannabis legalisation in the US and Uruguay.

The Home Office report recognises that these provide "an opportunity to establish an evidence base as to the efficacy of such approaches".

The US federal government has taken a similar stance. States in Europe are increasingly assertive about the successes of public health policies based on harm reduction and access to treatment services.

Latin America countries, which have traditionally served as the frontline of the US-led drug war, have openly revolted against continuing the strategy.

The US has traditionally served as the main enforcer and advocate for a "one-size-fits-all" prohibitionist model globally. It is now relinquishing this role and has recently promised, in the words of Ambassador William Brownfield, "to tolerate different national drug policies".

Others will try to take up the baton. Russia, home of some of the most backward and repressive policies anywhere, has continued to push for an escalation of the "war on drugs" at the UN.

The Home Office report is emblematic of the global shift. Let us hope that this report helps facilitate more open and honest discussion on this topic.

There are no silver bullet solutions, but the world should push ahead with new approaches based on science, evidence and policy experimentation, rather than maintaining a status quo based on fear and ideology.

Mike Gilson returns next week

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