Doctors Have “Ethical Responsibility” to Back Drug Legalization, British Medical Journal Says

By Zachary Siegel 11/16/16

“There is an imperative to investigate more effective alternatives to criminalisation of drug use and supply." 

Doctors Have “Ethical Responsibility” to Back Drug Legalization, British Medical Journal Says

A quarter of a billion adults across the world consumed an illegal drug in 2014. That’s one in 20 people worldwide. Under prohibition drug laws, all 250 million of these people should be in jail. 

It’s absurd to think that would ever happen. 

Which is why, among other reasons, editors at the British Medical Journal, one of the world’s most prestigious academic publications, called to end the criminalization of personal drug use. 

The “War on Drugs has failed,” the editors wrote, “and too often plays out as a war on the millions of people who use drugs.” 

Medicine is traditionally an institution charged with warning the masses about the dangers of drug use. So this call to decriminalize the personal use of drugs is a dramatic sea change in medical opinion, and a reflection of an even larger paradigm shift in the global community. 

Fiona Godlee, the first female editor in chief of BMJ, along with Richard Hurley, features and debates editor at the journal, argue in their editorial that doctors have an “ethical responsibility” to stand behind the legalization of drugs. 

The BMJ editors make their case by citing how drug policies inflict harm on people across the world. 

The Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, has seen the extrajudicial killing of over 5,000 drug users and criminals since July. Mexico, with its ongoing drug war, has seen over 65,000 deaths in the past decade. Prohibitive drug policy has done little to help people who live in these countries, the editors argue. 

The editors also take aim at drug policy in the United States, which has helped create the largest prison population in the world. Even in the midst of an epidemic of opioid overdoses, American policies continue to punish drug users rather than treat their addictions like any other medical condition. 

The government of the United Kingdom is also taken to task. The editors say the UK government played a role in doubling the number of deaths from opioids between 2012 and 2015 when it promoted abstinence-based methods over methadone and buprenorphine maintenance to treat opioid use disorder. 

Their call to end the War on Drugs while pointing out state-sponsored harms echo what Nobel Peace Prize winner and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said earlier this year: “I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more.”

Finally, the editors conclude, “Doctors are trusted and influential and can bring a rational and humane dimension to ideology and populist rhetoric about being tough on crime.”

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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