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“Drug War” Policies Need a Stint in Rehab

Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - The war on drugs is a complete failure everywhere, according a comprehensive review of 20 years of scientific literature released at the Harm Reduction 2010 conference in Liverpool, England that wraps up Thursday.

“The war on drugs does not work, period,” said Dr. Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society.

“We must take an evidence-based approach to dealing with the drug market, because current strategies are not working and people are paying for ill-considered policies with their lives,” Montaner said in a release.

An examination of all English-language scientific literature dating back more than 20 years reveals that drug law enforcement dramatically escalates drug-market violence. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a startling 82 percent of the studies found the various wars on drugs in countries and internationally simply increase violence.

Mexico offers a case in point. In 2006, it launched a massive nationwide counter-narcotics campaign. By 2008, drug violence claimed 6,290 lives in that year alone – double the number from the 2007. In first eight weeks of 2009, more than 1,000 people were killed. Since 2006, the total number killed has surpassed 17,000 people, including scores of judges, police, and journalists.

“From a scientific perspective, the widespread drug violence in places like Mexico and the U.S., as well as the gun violence we are increasingly seeing on city streets in other countries, appears to be directly linked to drug prohibition,” says review co-author Dr. Evan Wood, a researcher at the Canada’s British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.

The organisation is an international network of scientists, academics, and health practitioners committed to improving the health and safety of communities and individuals affected by illicit drugs.

The review was released in Liverpool at the 21st international conference on the reduction of drug-related harm. Harm reduction involves providing access to methadone, needle exchange services, and counselling for drug users.

The 26-page report, “Effect of Drug Law Enforcement on Drug-Related Violence: Evidence from a Scientific Review”, notes that drug prohibition has created a massive global illicit drug market, with an estimated annual value of 320 billion dollars.

Further, several of the studies included in the report suggested that violence stems from power vacuums created by the removal of key players from the illicit-drug market by drug law enforcement. As police use increasingly sophisticated methods to disrupt drug-distribution networks, levels of drug-related violence may rise.

The research also reveals that governments that rely on a tough-on-crime approach to attempt to control drug-related harms will only burden taxpayers and will likely create more drug-market violence within their communities

“These findings are consistent with historical examples such as the steep increases in gun-related homicides that emerged under alcohol prohibition in the United States,” the report states.

“Prohibition drives up the value of banned substances astronomically, creating lucrative markets exploited by local criminals and worldwide networks of organised crime,” said Wood.

While the U.S. currently has 500,000 people in jail on drug offences – five times as many as 20 years ago – the availability of illegal drugs and drug use has not changed. In fact, illegal drugs are cheaper and of better quality, the report observes.

Former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico have signed a statement that begins: “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalisation of consumption simply haven’t worked.”

Criminalising drugs and as a consequence drug users serves as a barrier to public health objectives, and has no other purpose other than to punish, Gerry Stimson, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), told IPS. IHRA exists to prevent the negative social, health, economic and criminal impacts of illicit drugs, alcohol and tobacco for individuals, communities and society according to its website

“Law enforcement is the biggest single expenditure on drugs, yet has rarely been evaluated. This work indicates an urgent need to shift resources from counter-productive law enforcement to a health-based public health approach,” Stimson said.

Laws criminalising drug use “must be repealed”, he said.

Two of three major British political parties during the run-up to parliamentary elections have gone on the record as wanting an informed debate on drug decriminalisation. That’s an encouraging development, says Stimson, who hopes that Britain will take the lead on this issue.

Current drug policies are also bad for the farmers in Burma and Afghanistan who grow opium in order to survive, Tom Kramer of the Transnational Institute, an academic think tank devoted to social justice, told the conference on its final day. Opium farmers need their own harm reduction strategy, said Kramer

“If we accept that people consume drugs, then we need to accept that people produce drugs and protect the rights of poor producing communities,” he said in a release.

In one final session, the mayor of a community in one of the major coca-producing regions in Colombia told participants: “The harm provoked by drug control policies is displacing farmer families, destroying the forests and does not resolve the fundamental problem of drug availability.”

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