HomeAfrica-NewsThe war on drugs is a fight without winners

The war on drugs is a fight without winners

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On June 18, 1971, then US President Richard Nixon launched the “war on drugs.” But instead of improving public health and well-being in the US by cracking down on drug use, he destroyed the lives of millions of people, both at home and abroad, especially in Latin America, Africa Central and Southeast Asia. The question now is how to repair the damage.

Nixon’s approach to drug use was fundamentally punitive. Thus, he exerted great pressure on law enforcement and the penal system, while sending millions to prison for non-violent crimes. In 2020, US law enforcement recorded more than 1.1 million drug arrests, the majority for simple possession. Non-white people have been disproportionately affected, despite having similar rates of drug use and sale as white people. Globally, around one in five people in prison are serving sentences primarily for drug-related offences.

In addition, the war on drugs has prevented effective regulation of drug production and distribution. This makes it easier for minors to access prohibited substances and generates exorbitant profits for criminal organizations that terrorize local communities. The war on drugs is a boon for corruption and a disaster for the rule of law.

Furthermore, all this devastation has not prevented drug use: an estimated 271 million people around the world use drugs that are prohibited by international treaties, while stigma and criminalization make the lives of users more difficult. dangerous and unhealthy.

Today, some 35 million people who use drugs require physical and mental health care, and seven million suffer from intravenous drug use-related infectious diseases (HIV and viral hepatitis). More than 500,000 people die each year from overdoses or adulteration, and overdose death rates are increasing.

Today, the futility and destructiveness of the drug war is well established and widely recognized, with experts, public officials and civil society organizations around the world reviewing their positions.

A growing number of countries are moving to implement drug policy reforms. In October, US President Joe Biden pardoned thousands of people who had been convicted of federal marijuana possession charges since the war on drugs began.

While these steps are certainly welcome, they are just the beginning. Reforming international models for drug control and undoing some of the damage of the war on drugs will require a humanitarian approach, focused on non-pathologizing interventions that promote individual and public health.

This includes mental health, which is closely related to drug use. Efforts to update and standardize criteria for mental health assessment and standards of care are essential. Only then can inequalities in access to healthcare between regions be identified and addressed. More generally, national drug policies need to be aligned with international efforts.

International organizations, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which have been working for decades to address the health consequences of drug abuse and the war on drugs, have long advocated this approach.

In 2005, the Italian Red Cross, the International Security and Development Council and the Rome-based Fondazione Villa Maraini came together to promote a framework for dialogue and cooperation on the development and implementation of humane and effective drug policies. The set of principles that produced this effort, the Rome Consensus for a Humanitarian Drug Policy, was signed by 121 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

In 2020, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, together with the C4 Recovery Foundation, the Levenson Foundation, the Police, Treatment and Community Collaborative (PTCC) and the Knowmad Institute, built on this achievement with the Rome Consensus 2.0. The aim was to recruit new signatories from around the world and provide a blueprint for policy and best practice for the next decade.

As the new consensus points out, we have the tools, guidance and evidence we need to “reduce and overcome the avoidable and unacceptable health and social harms associated with the world drug situation”. Prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and overdose management are pieces of the puzzle.

The Rome Consensus 2.0 recognizes that success can only be achieved if we “advocate at all levels to ensure more investment and public awareness to implement more humane and effective drug policies”. Ending the stigma and discrimination faced by people who use drugs is therefore vital for progress.

By fostering a more accurate, nuanced, and holistic understanding of drugs and drug use among the public, including, crucially, health professionals, educational campaigns can go a long way toward furthering this goal.

Such campaigns should recognize, to begin with, the socio-cultural, historical and even religious dimensions of drug use. The use of “sacred plants” (and substances that modify states of consciousness) has been documented for centuries as a treatment for ailments and in spiritual practices.

Additionally, a growing body of research indicates that certain psychoactive substances have the potential to treat mental health disorders. Far from being synonymous with addiction, some types of drug use can help treat it. Casual and responsible drug use, which never escalates into abuse, is often possible.

The war on drugs is a fight without winners. The only way out is to adopt a new approach focused on saving lives, alleviating suffering and maintaining human dignity. No one’s human rights, whether they use drugs or not, should be in question. — © Project Syndicate

Martín Ignacio Díaz Velásquez, One Young World Ambassador, is co-founder and executive director of the Knowmad Institute.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian..

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