“The momentum is there to change the policies on drugs for the better!” declared Pavel Bém, physician, former Drug Tsar of the Czech Government and Member of The National Drug Commission, during the conference “Time to rethink our policy on drugs – experiences from Europe and the Americas”. The event, organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom with the support of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, gathered a multidisciplinary group of experts to discuss possible alternatives to the current drug policies implemented around the world.
This event aimed at breaking the taboo surrounding the debate on illicit drug production, traffic and consumption, and focusing on an evidence-based approach to the drug phenomenon. Different experiences towards depenalization and decriminalization of illicit drug use were analyzed with the purpose of having a debate free of emotions on best and worst practices in the field of drug policies. All panelists agreed that an in depth revision of current drug policies around the world is urgent, especially in light of the enormous human and social costs and its threats to democratic institutions, especially in production and transit countries. Pavel Bém called for a paradigm shift, which should be led by the EU.
According to him, though fresh wind comes from the Americas, where new ways to deal with recreational drug use are being tested, the EU is the only supranational body that can take the leading role in pushing for an evidence-based approach to illicit drugs.
What should an evidence-based approach towards drugs include? Firstly, we must clarify that drug policies can focus on the supply side (the producers and distributers) or the demand side (the consumers). They generally include 4 main areas of action: prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, harm reduction measures, and repression and supply reduction. An evidence-based approach relies on data on the drug phenomenon and on the effects of the policies currently implemented in all four areas of action. There is general agreement among experts that the war on drugs, meaning the systematic focus on supply reduction, especially with police and military means, has failed, failed because, though it has cost billions of tax payers’ money, it has been ineffective in reducing the drug production and has triggered many negative side-effects such as rising violence and mortality in many producing and transit countries.
Diana Rossi, Coordinator of Research at Intercambios Civil, focused mainly on the negative effects drug policies implemented around the globe have in Latin America. In many Latin American states, the rise in organized crime and violence has been accompanied by a rise in drug consumption and the stigma some countries are bearing. In reaction to this fact, some governments in the region have started an international debate on the decriminalization of drug use. Most of the arguments in favour state that the current drug policy has done nothing to reduce drug supply or demand.[i] It has stigmatized drug users by distancing them from preventive and assistance services and has used public funds from the judicial system and law enforcement organizations for penalizing consumers rather than persecuting dealers. Considering current trends towards decriminalization in Europe and the Americas, Diana Rossi said “we need more cooperation at regional level in order to set this issue on the international agenda.”
An evidence-based approach also avoids any moral assumptions in deciding which measures to apply. Data shows that after depenalization and decriminalization of the use of drugs, and the shift of public expenditure towards prevention and harm reduction measures in certain countries, as for example the Netherlands, Portugal and the Czech Republic, there has been an increase in treatment and a decrease in mortality. Although data suggests otherwise, an average of 80% of public expenditure on drug policies is still directed towards supply reduction measures. In view of this imbalance, Mechthild Dyckmans, the acting Drug Commissioner of the German Federal Government, underlined the necessity to reallocate money towards prevention and harm reduction measures. In Germany, a comprehensive policy towards drugs and addiction, through increased treatment offers and harm reduction measures such as needle exchange programs and consumption rooms, has successfully decreased drug related death and HIV
Stephen Pudney, professor of economics at the University of Essex, underlined that an evidence-based approach towards drugs is the only way to go because morality is subjective and moral positions change over time. Along the same line, Carel Edwards, Former Head of Unit Drug Policy Coordination at the European Commission, remembered the audience how certain policies of the past based on moral principles seem shocking nowadays, such as the prohibition of homosexuality or segregation. In his view, within a few generations, people will ask themselves how it was possible that such morally biased policies on drugs could have been implemented. However, he agreed with the other panelists that there is hope. A progressive movement towards an evidence-based approach in Europe combined with the decriminalization and even legalization policies implemented in countries like Uruguay, could lead to a de facto distancing of
the three UN Convetions currently in force. Mechthild Dyckmans and Carel Edwards agreed that a review of the UN Conventions, although they promote a drug eradication approach, might not be necessary or not even desirable in order to change national policies. Indeed, as power relations in the UN have changed since 1961, when the first Convention was signed, it might not be possible to agree on having an evidence –based approach at the international stage. Thus, re-interpreting the conventions may be the way to go.
De facto decriminalization and the regulation of the drug market may also be the only solution to new emerging drugs. Indeed, policy makers trying to act against new emerging psychotropic substances through prohibition face the problem of an enormously flexible market versus very slow law-making. Mechthild Dyckmans explained how it took more than a year to include 40 new substances on the list of illicit substances in Germany, while in the meantime 11 new drugs had emerged on the market. According to the panelists the solution must go through more public information campaigns on new emerging substances and their risks.
The usual argument made against decriminalization and legalization of illicit drugs is that it would trigger an increase in consumption. However, evidence from Portugal presented by Jorge Quintas de Oliveira from the School of Criminology at the University of Porto shows that decriminalization has had no effect on consumption. Indeed, scholars from different fields have shown that there is null or only a small relation between policies, law or law enforcement and drug use. The case of Portugal[ii], which decriminalized the use of all illicit drugs in 2001, is very interesting as one of the few case studies. Professor Quintas presented the data collected since decriminalization and showed that in comparison with the previous law, there has not been any effect on drug use, however, there is a significant decrease in drug addiction and drug harms, such as death and HIV. Professor Pudney added that when the UK shifted to a less strict prosecution of drug users, the public debate on the negative impact of drug consumption might even have led to a decrease in consumption. In his view, decriminalization and depenalization could lead to better education policies and thus reduce harmful impacts of drug use.
Stephen Pudney also put forward the fact that under the current protectionist regimes, the authorities have no control over the quality of drugs. In the UK, the components of cannabis have progressively evolved over the past few years, during which levels of the protective anti-psychotic component cannabidiol (CBD) have decreased while the average amount of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has increased. Cannabis has thus become more harmful over the years. According to the hypothetical economic model presented by Professor Pudney, under which cannabis would be legalized and licensed in the UK, there are many possible outcomes, while costs and benefits are difficult to assess. Therefore, Stephen Pudney claimed that “UN treaties requiring a prohibitionist stance on cannabis put unnecessary restrictions on governments. In order to assess the impact of legalization, we need brave policy trials!”
At least 85 million adult Europeans have used an illicit drug at some point in their lives, representing a quarter of Europe’s adult population. Illicit drug misuse is a major public health problem in Europe and the world. However, response to this phenomenon during many years has been prohibitive, focusing on drug supply reduction. Switzerland was one of the first countries to set up needle exchange programs and consumption rooms, thus treating the phenomenon in a pragmatic way, focusing on the treatment of addiction. Nowadays, such harm reduction measures are implemented in most countries of the EU. A paradigm shift has already begun in Latin America and progressive decriminalization is a reality in Europe. Now, with upcoming meetings of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in 2014 and the UN General Assembly Special Session on drug policy in 2016, the time has now come to go a step further and rethink drug policies implemented around the globe.
[ii] For further information on the depenalization of drug use in Portugal, read Glenn Greenwald’s article for CATO Institute “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies”
“Latin America awakes: a review of the new drug policy debate”, courtesy of Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, NOREF