13th December 2021
By Emily Ledger

The Global Commission on Drug Policy – a group that was formed a decade ago by leaders from Europe and the United Nations to tackle issues relating to drug use – has released a new report supporting an end to drug prohibition, among other recommendations.

The report, titled Time to End Prohibition, notes that, while a decade ago, drugs were widely considered “a scourge to be swept under the carpet by aggressive law enforcement”, the conversation has changed dramatically in recent years. In fact, the authors state in the foreword to the report that “the taboo on openly opposing that global regime has been well and truly broken.”

What is the Global Commission on Drug Policy?

The commission was formed in 2011 to assess the effectiveness – and the harms – of global drug policies. It was created by a group of personalities from the Americas and Europe, including former Heads of State and Governments looking to “inspire better drug policy globally”.

Since its founding, the commission has released annual reports detailing the latest findings on issues including drug use and HIV/AIDS (2012), the negative effects of drug control on public health (2015), and “the world drug perception problem” (2017). Each of these reports lays out recommendations for more effective ways of tackling these issues, including decriminalisation and other reforms.

These findings have consistently concluded that “the international framework, based on the 1961,1971, and 1988 conventions on drugs, is itself the problem.

Time to End Prohibition

It is estimated that around 270 million people breach international drug laws every year, despite decades of costly law enforcement of prohibition. Far from acting as a deterrent, the recreational use of drugs has continued to rise since the introduction of repressive international laws.

The Effects of Prohibition on…

Public Safety

The Global Commission on Drug Policy has consistently recognised the risks to public health that are exacerbated by prohibition. For example, drug-related deaths increased by 60% between 2010 and 2015 alone. Research shows that the risk of dangerous drug use and related deaths is increased when access to safe, legal supply and support is denied.

In countries and jurisdictions where drug policy reforms – including legalisation, decriminalisation, safe-administration centres, and drug-checking facilities – have been introduced, the risk of overdose and complications relating to drug use is decreased.

For example, in 2001, Portugal became the first country in the world to decriminalise the personal possession and use of all drugs – promoting drug use as a health issue as opposed to a criminal one. The legislation was eventually accompanied by the introduction of safe drug consumption rooms and testing facilities as well as diverting drug users into support instead of the criminal system.

Since Portugal decriminalised drugs, overall drug use has remained low in comparison to other European countries, and a significant drop in infectious disease rates (including HIV) has been recorded. Drug-related deaths in Portugal have also remained below the EU average since 2001.

Social Justice

According to the recent report, an estimated $100 billion is spent enforcing the war on drugs every year. Of the global prison population (10.35 million), 20% of inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offences – the majority of which were non-violent.

Endless reviews and studies have presented evidence that the war on drugs disproportionately affects Black and minority communities. A recent review in the UK found that Black individuals were 12-times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their White counterparts – despite similar rates of use.

Recommendations for Reform…

The latest recommendations by the Global Commission on Drug Policy revolve around the need to end repressive drug policies and “tough on crime” agendas on the world stage. The Time to End Prohibition report stresses the need for a new international drug control strategy that “allows national and local governments to test drug regulation models that protect the health and safety of citizens and diminishes the power, profits and violent reign of transnational criminal networks.

To achieve this, the group set out the following recommendations:

Promote national legal frameworks and practices in accordance with human rights norms… including full access to harm reduction services, drug dependence treatment, and controlled essential medicines for pain and palliative care. Investment in research and innovative harm reduction models for stimulants and new psychoactive substances is also urged.

The decriminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use will help to end police violence and harassment and ensure fair process and proportionality of sentences, including the abolition of the death penalty (still enforced in a number of countries).

Involve all concerned stakeholders in policymaking – including drug users and small-scale actors dependent on the illegal drugs economy through enhanced inclusion, equity and non-discrimination in new policies.

Mandate the World Health Organization to ensure adequate access to essential controlled medicines and scientific assessment of substances… the mandate of the International Narcotics Control Board should be transferred from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime to the World Health Organisation.

This should be complemented by the transfer of scheduling decisions to the World Health Assembly, “based on scientific assessment of the therapeutic evidence of substances by the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence.”

Move towards a new international drug control framework based on evidence and the latest UN recommendations… including the formation of a coalition of UN member states that are implementing new approaches to drug control and that are moving beyond the international conventions. This would “open a robust and evidence-based debate about reforming the international drug control framework.”

And Finally…

Regulate all drugs… Drugs that are currently prohibited should be regulated. A cautious, incremental and evidence-based process should be implemented to achieve effective regulation that protects and promotes human rights, public health, sustainable development, peace and security.”

The group warns that particular attention should be paid to the tensions between public health and commercial interests. Civil societies and communities – including people who use drugs, youth, cultivators and small-scale actors in the illicit market should also be consulted.

The recommendations laid out in the Time to End Prohibition report are just the latest to promote the need for a different approach to international drug policy. Meanwhile, more and more countries and jurisdictions are reviewing their domestic approach to drug policy – particularly relating to cannabis.

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