Medical Experts Call for Global Drug Decriminalization

By May Wilkerson 03/28/16

Experts have concluded that anti-drug policies contribute to lethal violence, discrimination and higher rates of disease.

Medical Experts Call for Global Drug Decriminalization
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A group of 22 medical experts have taken a major stand against the global "war on drugs." The group, assembled by Johns Hopkins University and medical journal The Lancet, put out a call to decriminalize all nonviolent drug use and possession, citing mounting scientific evidence that the war on drugs has been a failure.

In a report published in The Lancet this week, the experts conclude that anti-drug policies implemented in the last 50 years "directly and indirectly contribute to lethal violence, disease, discrimination, forced displacement, injustice and the undermining of people’s right to health." In the U.S., they urged states to "move gradually toward regulated drug markets and apply the scientific method to their assessment."

The report was published in the lead-up to a special UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs to be held next month in New York, where world leaders will reevaluate global drug policy over the past 50 years. Many experts hope that leaders will be able to agree on and develop a more public health-centered approach to drug regulation in the future.

"The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production and trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national drug laws, but these policies are based on ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded," said Commissioner Dr. Chris Beyrer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a statement.

The report included broad evidence that global drug policy has been ineffective and damaging, including: the “striking increase” in murder in Mexico since the country ramped up its military approach to the drug trade in 2006. Also, the “excessive use” of incarceration to control drug use and distribution, which experts called the “biggest contribution” to higher rates of HIV and hepatitis C infection among drug users. Further problems include the huge racial disparities in drug law enforcement and incarceration, especially in the U.S., and human rights violations, including the torture and abuse of drug prisoners in countries like Mexico.

The commissioners of the report recommended that countries follow the lead of countries with progressive drug laws, like Portugal, which experimented with decriminalization. In these countries, rates of drug use have decreased, overdose deaths are uncommon, and rates of new HIV infections have dramatically decreased, the report noted.

But beyond decriminalization, the commissioners urged countries to experiment with legalization and regulation of certain types of drug use, the way states like Colorado and Washington have done with marijuana. "Although regulated legal drug markets are not politically possible in the short term in some places, the harms of criminal markets and other consequences of prohibition catalogued in this Commission will probably lead more countries (and more U.S. states) to move gradually in that direction—a direction we endorse," they wrote.

Drug policy reformers are hopeful that the upcoming UNGASS will mark a shift in global drug policy. But it could be challenging to get nearly 200 countries to agree on anything, notes the Washington Post. So the outcome may not be promising. A draft document of the resolution to be discussed at the session urges countries to "actively promote a society free of drug abuse," which sounds eerily reminiscent of the language used in anti-drug rhetoric of the 1990s.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.