Panel Takes Sobering Read of Status of International Drug Policies

Event Video: 

A panel of high-level drug policy experts on November 19th at IPI took up the question of how much progress had been made on 10-year goals enunciated in 2009, and they concluded that the results were very disappointing. The panel was addressing the subject, “The Future of Drug Policies, and the Lessons Learned,” at a policy forum co-sponsored by IPI, IDPC, and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).

“It is difficult to credibly claim any progress, given the reality of a robust and growing illicit drug market coupled with an unprecedented rise in both drug-related harms as well as the devastating policy harms,“ said Ann Fordham, Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC). “We cannot keep doing the same thing and expecting different results, that is the definition of insanity.”

She said it was “time that the international community moves away from these damaging and unrealistic drug free goals and considers adopting more meaningful goals and targets in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and international human rights commitments. In formulating social and public policies, it’s fundamental to consider the impact on the lives of people and communities on public health and on human rights, both at the core of the values of the United Nations.”

Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and onetime Administrator of the UN Development Programme who is now Global Commissioner on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, said, “When you have conventions that label drugs as an evil, there’s a kind of logic that has followed from that, that the people who use them are evil, and therefore almost anything can be done to these people, and that, of course, is where human rights abuses and the punitive approach has come in. So we really need serious change in the conventions.”

Saying he was going to “dispense with the diplomatic nuance,” Craig Mokhiber, Director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), declared, “The so-called war on drugs and all of its cousins, various approaches based upon prohibition, have been an unmitigated catastrophe for human rights all around the planet and has been called one of those situations where the cure is far more deadly than the disease.”

In 2009, UN member states set 2019 as the target date “to eliminate or reduce significantly and measurably” the illicit cultivation, production, trafficking and use of internationally controlled substances. This coming March, the international community will hold a ministerial segment in Vienna to take stock of action to date and delineate the global drug policy for the next decade. Unfortunately, the prospects for an ambitious and transformative overhaul of the current drug framework appear unlikely.

Ms. Clark and Ms. Fordham both lamented that no official process had been put in place to scrutinize the actions taken since 2009, but they called attention to the Consortium’s own assessment, the new civil society shadow report. “Fortunately, civil society has come to the rescue,” Ms. Clark exclaimed.

In an introduction to the report, Ms. Clark cited the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and asserted that goals concerning gender equality, protection of the environment, socio-economic development and the reduction of violence and corruption “will not be achieved for an important part of the population because of current drug policies.”

Listing some of the performance shortfalls over the past decade, Ms. Fordham said that while one of the five main targets was the reduction or elimination of opium and coca cannabis, there had been notable increases of both, and where another target called for reducing the risks to health, the number of HIV and Hepatitis cases and drug related deaths had grown. Target number five sought to curb money laundering, but only one percent of all money being laundered is confiscated, she said. In her remarks, Ms. Clark said that since 2009, opium production was up 130%, cocaine 34 % and what she called “mass incarceration” was on the rise, with one fifth of the prisoners in jail for minor and non-violent possession offenses.

Simone Monasebian, Director of the New York office of UNODC, pointed out that the systemic failures had particularly negative impacts on women. “When women are put in jail, the consequences that they suffer are far more dangerous than [for] men, be it because of stigma, be it because family networks disintegrate,” she said. When women are imprisoned, she said, 35% of the cases are for drugs, while the comparable number for men is 19%. She added that most women arrested for drug use are also victims of sexual violence, which they continue to face in prison.

Ms. Clark said that 20th century drug control policy had been characterized by “fierce law enforcement and even militarization” resulting in a counterproductive “prohibitionist” approach that persists, and that the consequences were deaths, health epidemics, over-incarceration and lack of access to pain relief and education. She identified the victims of this as “the ones we must not leave behind if we’re true to the 2030 agenda.”

Mr. Mokhiber rued the dominance of the prohibitionist approach, saying, “criminalization leads to stigmatization,” with human rights ignored, and  large numbers of African-Americans and other minorities imprisoned and given longer sentences than convicted murderers.

“There has been a diversion of public resources, trillions of dollars across the globe have been diverted away from addressing the root causes of drug abuse… like discrimination, like the denial of economic and social rights, work and housing and healthcare and Social Security,” he said.

“Instead of funding those root causes of drug abuse, the money has gone into a failed policy approach.” He said this approach was self-defeating and actually had had the effect of fueling “the business model of criminal organizations.”

He called for a new approach, one based on evidence and values. He recommended, “Take prohibition and enforcement out of the center of the paradigm and replace it with human rights and public health and evidence-based policies.”

Dominique Favre, Deputy Permanent Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN, made opening remarks, and IPI Research Fellow Jimena Leiva Roesch moderated the meeting.