Hard News by Russell Brown


Drugs and the road forward

Radio New Zealand asked me this morning to write an opinion piece on whether Jacinda Ardern and her government did the right thing by declining to sign up to President Donald Trump's Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem.

It was something I'd been thinking about for the past day, so it was an easy yes. You can read it here.

In essence, I think we were right to stay well away from this. As I explain in the column, the document is somewhat meaningless – it's largely lifted, verbatim in places, from the UNGASS 2016 output document that the United Nations General Assembly endorsed only two years ago. But it strips out important language about human rights and and the harms done by drug control itself; language that was hard-won through the UN process. In terms of New Zealand's longtime position, it adds nothing and takes away things that matter.

The column, noting Trump's closing promise to work "to deliver a drug-free future for all of our children", also covers ground I wrote about here a couple of years ago, describing what befell the UN's bold 1998 vision of "a drug-free world". That slogan not only didn't help, it made things worse.

The secretary general who presided over that vision in 1998, the late Kofi Annan, subsequently changed his mind completely and wrote in 2016 that "we need to accept that a drug-free world is an illusion". He became a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of former national leaders and other luminaries, including Helen Clark, that advocates for drug law reform.

Today, the Commission released its 2018 report: Regulation: The responsible control of drugs.

It's a comprehensive, clearly-written document that doesn't shrink from the difficulties of moving on from the prohibition model, but argues that it is essential we do so. The opening letter from the Commission's chair, former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss, concludes thus:

Nevertheless, the international drug control regime continues to be based on a single premise: prohibition of any use of drugs beyond their medical and scientific use, thus forbidding their production, exchange, transport, sale and consumption. A demand for drugs exists, however, and if it is not satisfied through legal ways it will be satisfied by the illegal market. Prohibition has allowed criminal organizations to control the whole chain of drugs. Every region in the world suffers: from violence induced by turf wars over production areas and transit routes, from corruption and connivance of state institutions, and from laundering of drug money, which damages the legal economy and the functioning of democratic institutions. Collaboration among countries is necessary to face crime multinational enterprises.

A fundamental question regarding illegal drugs is still rarely asked. Who should assume the control of these substances that bear serious risks for health – the state or organized crime? We are convinced that the only responsible answer is to regulate the market, to establish regulations adapted to the dangerousness of each drug, and to monitor and enforce these regulations. This is already the case for food, for legal psychoactive substances, for chemicals, for medications, for isotopes and many other products or behaviors that comprise a risk of harm. This report shows that the regulation of currently illegal drugs is not only possible, it is necessary. The report reminds us that even if it takes the global community a long time to review the current drug conventions, no international convention frees states from their obligations towards their populations, to protect their lives, their health, their dignity, and to guarantee equal rights for all without discrimination.

What follows is a roadmap we would do well to study. It will take the world a long time to reach the destination it describes, and it might be a bumpy ride. We might find a better map, or decide we don't wish to go all the way. But it's a better idea than jamming into reverse and doing the things that caused so much suffering, injustice and violence the first time around.

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