The international drug control regime is based on three international conventions: the 1961 Single Convention against Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. The overarching aim of these three conventions is to control the production, trade, and use of drugs to combat drug abuse and trafficking, while at the same time ensuring that there are adequate supplies for medical and other licit uses. These conventions are widely ratified: 183 state parties ratified the 1961 and 1971 Conventions and 188 parties ratified the 1988 Convention.
This report is a legal analysis of how human rights should be respected in the field of drug policy. The authors have reviewed international law governing both drug policy and human rights. They also examined statements from 20 international organizations and five UN agencies, which are active in this field.
The main finding of the report is that Article 33 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (often referred to as CRC) is the only one of the nine conventions governing human rights dealing with illicit drugs.
There can be no mistaking of the meaning and intention of what CRC Article 33 aims to. It reads: "States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances as defined in the relevant international treaties and to prevent the use of children in the illicit production and trafficking of such substances."
Thus, it is an obligation of every country that has ratified CRC to protect and sustain children's human rights to ensure a drug-free childhood. (Children are defined as persons under 18.) CRC is the most widely ratified of all conventions related to human rights. CRC Article 33 must always be the basis for any discussion of drug policy and human rights, internationally as well as nationally.
This is a critical moment for drug prevention because so many people are confused by those whom we broadly label the anti-prohibitionists and who commonly label their goals as "harm reduction." In doing this, they reject the more than 100 year-old global commitment to protect people from illicit drugs by rejecting the drug-free goal in both prevention and treatment. Shockingly, this is done under the banner of human rights.
One of the latest examples is the Global Commission on HIV and the Law - Risks, Right and Health, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Recommendation No 3.1.4 of the report reads: "decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use, as the net effect of such sanctions is often harmful to society." Interestingly the Swedish foreign aid authority Sida is one of the financiers of the report. Should Sweden follow Recommendation 3.1.4, it would lead to major changes in Sweden’s drug policy, in breach of the UN drug conventions.
The World Federation Against Drugs (WFAD), an international network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Sweden, recently published a sharply differing report titled, The Protection of Children from Illicit Drugs - A Minimum Human Rights Standard, authored by Roxana Stere, a doctoral student at SNSPA University in Bucharest, and attorney Stephan Dahlgren, a former Head of Child Protection for UNICEF in Zambia.
The authors have reviewed the international law governing drug policy and human rights. They also examined statements from 20 NGOs and five UN agencies, which are active in this field. The main finding of the report is that Article 33 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, or CRC, is the only core UN human rights instrument that mentions illicit drugs
There can be no mistaking of the meaning and intention of CRC Article 33. It reads:
"States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances as defined in the relevant international treaties and to prevent the use of children in the illicit production and trafficking of such substances."
Thus, the world’s children (defined as persons under age 18) have an affirmative and essential right to drug-free childhoods. Further, it is the obligation of every country to protect and defend that right. The CRC is the most widely ratified treaty within international law and among human rights instruments (only the United States and Somalia have not ratified the CRC). CRC Article 33 must be the starting point for any discussion of drug policy and human rights, internationally as well as nationally.
How do the anti-prohibitionist arguments conform to actual human rights law, and especially to CRC Article 33? Over the last five to ten years, several intensely anti-prohibitionist NGOs broadened their scope from talking about "people who cannot stop using drug" (addicts), to include "people who do not want to stop using drugs." These organizations want to define the nonmedical use of illicit drugs as a protected lifestyle choice, for which there is no support in any of the international conventions. According to these NGOs, recreational illicit drug users must be seen as a vulnerable group in society and their decisions to use illicit drugs must be protected as a human right. These advocates seek to award any illicit drug user, whether addicted or not, the protected victim status – while their drug use continues – a status that human rights instruments today only award to very select groups such as trafficked women and children, political refugees, etc.
"The war on drugs has failed" is the most common argument from the international NGOs that want to weaken or abolish the UN drug conventions. This "war" is not called for anywhere in the conventions; it is a pejorative and inflammatory term only used by those who oppose the prohibition of illegal drug use. Even so, a "war" on illegal drug use is not prohibited by any human rights convention any more than is a war against poverty/racism/cancer or any other social or health problem. None of the NGOs examined in the Stere-Dahlgren report have defined what constitutes the "war on drugs" which they seek to stop. There is no definable legal meaning of this term in the context of human rights, and therefore it is a non-argument.
Unfortunately, the idea of drug decriminalization/legalization has a strong tailwind in the world at present. The international drug policy debate today focuses on drug-using adults and has overshadowed the moral and legal obligation to protect children from drugs. If the world put the necessary spotlight on the group most vulnerable to drugs, children, the debate would dramatically change. Drug abuse most commonly starts in adolescence, when the brain is uniquely vulnerable. Childhood is the time when drug habits are established, including for most children even today, a drug-free lifestyle. It is crucial how a society succeeds in its ambitions to protect children from drugs, including their own use and involvement in drug production and sale, and use by their caretakers. The right to a drug-free childhood under CRC Article 33 is an obligation for all countries to work to protect and a concern for all adults in the world to rally behind.
Sweden has a special responsibility in this matter with unique experience in drug policy and as an important funder of UNICEF. Maria Larsson, Minister for Children and the Elderly, delivered a well-received speech on 21 March 2011 in Vienna, at the meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, in which she pointed to the obligation of UN States to fulfill their obligation to protect children from illicit drugs according to the CRC Article 33. This was one of the few occasions when Article 33 attracted international attention at the highest level. But speech alone, even a brilliant speech like Minister Larsson’s, is not enough. Now is the time for strong political action! The Swedish government should urge UNICEF – and make funds available – to conduct a thorough analysis of CRC Article 33 and its practical implications on drug policy. UNICEF should also be instructed to recommend methods for nations to use to identify how they protect children from drugs and assess to what extent they live up to the obligations of CRC Article 33.
Robert L. DuPont, M.D., President of the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc., a non-profit organization in Rockville, Maryland USA (www.ibhinc.org). Previously, he was the first Director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and served as White House Drug Chief for both Presidents Nixon and Ford.
Kerstin Käll, M.D., Ph.D., Chief Medical Officer at the Dependency Clinic, University Hospital, Linköping Sweden.
Per Johansson, Secretary of the Board of WFAD, representing Europe. He is also Secretary General of the Swedish National Association for a Drug-free Society (RNS).
Various well funded pressure groups have mounted campaigns to overturn the United Nations Conventions on drugs. These groups claim that society should accept the fact of drugs as a problem that will remain and, therefore, should be managed in a way that would enable millions of people to take advantage of an alleged ‘legal right’ to use drugs of their choice.
It is important to note that international law makes a distinction between “hard law” and “soft law.” Hard law is legally binding upon the States. Soft law is not binding. UN Conventions, such as the Conventions on Drugs, are considered hard law and must be upheld by the countries that have ratified the UN Drug Conventions.
International narcotics legislation is mainly made up of the three UN Conventions from 1961 (Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs), 1971 (Convention on Psychotropic Substances), and 1988 (Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances):
The 1961 Convention sets out that “the possession, use, trade in, distribution, import, export, manufacture and the production of drugs is exclusively limited to medical and scientific purposes”. Penal cooperation is to be established so as to ensure that drugs are only used licitly (for prescribed medical purposes).
The 1971 Convention resembles closely the 1961 Convention, whilst establishing an international control system for Psychotropic Substances.
The 1988 Convention reflects the response of the international community to increasing illicit cultivation, production, manufacture, and trafficking activities.
International narcotics legislation draws a line between licit (medical) and illicit (non-medical) use, and sets out measures for prevention of illicit use, including penal measures. The preamble to the 1961 Convention states that the parties to the Convention are “Recognizing that addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind”. The Conventions are reviewed every ten years and have consistently been upheld.
The UN system of drug control includes the Office of Drugs and Crime, the International Narcotics Control Board, and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. The works of these bodies are positive and essential in international drug demand and supply reduction. They are also attacked by those seeking to legalise drugs.
It is frequently and falsely asserted that the so-called “War on Drugs” is inappropriate and has become a very costly and demonstrable failure. It is declared by some that vast resources have been poured into the prevention of drug use and the suppression of illicit manufacturing, trafficking, and supply. It is further claimed that what is essentially a chronic medical problem has been turned into a criminal justice issue with inappropriate remedies that make “innocent” people criminals. In short, the flawed argument is that “prohibition” monies have been wasted and the immeasurable financial resources applied to this activity would be better spent for the general benefit of the community.
The groups supporting legalisation are: people who use drugs, those who believe that the present system of control does more harm than good, and those who are keen to make significant profits from marketing newly authorised addictive substances. In addition to pernicious distribution of drugs, dealers circulate specious and misleading information. They foster the erroneous belief that drugs are harmless, thus adding to even more confused thinking.
Superficially crafted, yet pseudo-persuasive arguments are put forward that can be accepted by many concerned, well intentioned people who have neither the time nor the knowledge to research the matter thoroughly, but accept them in good faith. Frequently high profile people claim that legalisation is the best way of addressing a major social problem without cogent supporting evidence. This too influences others, especially the ill informed who accept statements as being accurate and well informed. Through this ill-informed propaganda, people are asked to believe that such action would defeat the traffickers, take the profit out of the drug trade and solve the drug problem completely.
The total case for legalisation seems to be based on the assertion that the government assault on alleged civil liberties has been disastrously and expensively ineffective and counter-productive. In short, it is alleged, in contradiction to evidence, that prohibition has produced more costs than benefits and, therefore, the use of drugs on a personal basis should be permitted. Advocates claim that legalisation would eliminate the massive expenditure incurred by prohibition and would take the profit out of crime for suppliers and dealers. They further claim that it would decriminalise what they consider “understandable” human behaviour and thus prevent the overburdening of the criminal justice system that is manifestly failing to cope. It is further argued irrationally that police time would not be wasted on minor drug offences, the courts would be freed from the backlog of trivial cases and the prisons would not be used as warehouses for those who choose to use drugs, and the saved resources could be used more effectively.
Types of drug legalisation
The term “legalisation” can have any one of the following meanings:
1. Total Legalisation - All illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana would be legal and treated as commercial products. No government regulation would be required to oversee production, marketing, or distribution.
2. Regulated Legalisation - The production and distribution of drugs would be regulated by the government with limits on amounts that can be purchased and the age of purchasers. There would be no criminal or civil sanctions for possessing, manufacturing, or distributing drugs unless these actions violated the regulatory system. Drug sales could be taxed.
3. Decriminalisation - Decriminalisation eliminates criminal sanctions for drug use and provides civil sanctions for possession of drugs.
To achieve the agenda of drug legalisation, advocates argue for:
legalising drugs by lowering or ending penalties for drug possession and use - particularly marijuana;
legalising marijuana and other illicit drugs as a so-called medicine;
harm reduction programmes such as needle exchange programmess, drug injection sites, heroin distribution to addicts, and facilitation of so-called safe use of drugs that normalize drug use, create the illusion that drugs can be used safely if one just knows how, and eliminates a goal of abstinence from drugs;
legalised growing of industrial hemp;
an inclusion of drug users as equal partners in establishing and enforcing drug policy; and
protection for drug users at the expense and to the detriment of non-users under the pretense of “human rights.”
The problem is with the drugs and not the drug policies
Legalisation of current illicit drugs, including marijuana, is not a viable solution to the global drug problem and would actually exacerbate the problem.
The UN Drug Conventions were adopted because of the recognition by the international community that drugs are an enormous social problem and that the trade adversely affects the global economy and the viability of some countries that have become transit routes. The huge sums of illegal money generated by the drug trade encourage money laundering and have become inextricably linked with other international organised criminal activities such as terrorism, human trafficking, prostitution and the arms trade. Drug Lords have subverted the democratic governments of some countries to the great detriment of law abiding citizens.
Drug abuse has had a major adverse effect on global health and the spread of communicable diseases such as AIDS/HIV. Control is vitally important for the protection of communities against these problems.
There is international agreement in the UN Conventions that drugs should be produced legally under strict supervision to ensure adequate supplies only for medical and researchpurposes.
The cumulative effects of prohibition and interdiction combined with education and treatment during 100 years of international drug control have had a significant impact in stemming the drug problem. Control is working and one can only imagine how much worse the problem would have become without it. For instance:
In 2007, drug control had reduced the global opium supply to one-third the level in 1907 and even though current reports indicate recent increased cultivation in Afghanistan and production in Southeast Asia, overall production has not increased.
During the last decade, world output of cocaine and amphetamines has stabilized; cannabis output has declined since 2004; and opium production has declined since 2008.
We, therefore, strongly urge nations to uphold and enhance current efforts to prevent the use, cultivation, production, traffic, and sale of illegal drugs. We further urge our leaders to reject the legalisation of currently illicit drugs as an acceptable solution to the world’s drug problem because of the following reasons:
Only 6.1% of people globally between the ages of 15 and 64 use drugs (World Drug Report 2011 UNODC) and there is little public support for the legalisation of highly dangerous substances. Prohibition has ensured that the total number of users is low because legal sanctions do influence people’s behaviour.
There is a specific obligation to protect children from the harms of drugs, as is evidenced through the ratification by the majority of United Nations Member States of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Article 33 states that Member States “shall take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances as defined in the relevant international treaties, and to prevent the use of children in the illicit production and trafficking of such substances”.
Legalisation sends the dangerous tacit message of approval, that drug use is acceptable and cannot be very harmful.
Permissibility, availability and accessibility of dangerous drugs will result in increased consumption by many who otherwise would not consider using them.
Enforcement of laws creates risks that discourage drug use. Laws clearly define what is legal and illegal and emphasise the boundaries.
Legalisation would increase the risks to individuals, families, communities and world regions without any compensating benefits.
Legalisation would remove the social sanctions normally supported by a legal system and expose people to additional risk, especially the young and vulnerable.
The legalisation of drugs would lead inevitably to a greater number of dependencies and addictions likely to match the levels of licit addictive substances. In turn, this would lead to increasing related morbidity and mortality, the spread of communicable diseases such as AIDS/HIV and the other blood borne viruses exacerbated by the sharing of needles and drugs paraphernalia, and an increased burden on the health and social services.
There would be no diminution in criminal justice costs as, contrary to the view held by those who support legalisation, crime would not be eliminated or reduced. Dependency often brings with it dysfunctional families together with increased domestic child abuse.
There will be increases in drugged driving and industrial accidents.
Drug Control is a safeguard protecting millions from the effects of drug abuse and addiction particularly, but not exclusively, in developing countries.
Statements about taxation offsetting any additional costs are demonstrably flawed and this has been shown in the case of alcohol and tobacco taxes. Short of governments distributing free drugs, those who commit crime now to obtain them would continue to do so if they became legal.
Legalisation would not take the profit out of the drug trade as criminals will always find ways of countering legislation. They would continue their dangerous activities including cutting drugs with harmful substances to maximise sales and profits. Aggressive marketing techniques, designed to promote increased sales and use, would be applied rigorously to devastating effect.
Other ‘legal’ drugs – alcohol and tobacco, are regularly traded on the black market and are an international smuggling problem; an estimated 600 billion cigarettes are smuggled annually (World Drug report 2009). Taxation monies raised from these products go nowhere near addressing consequential costs.
Many prisons have become incubators for infection and the spread of drug related diseases at great risk to individual prisoners, prison staff and the general public. Failure to eliminate drug use in these institutions exacerbates the problem.
The prisons are not full of people who have been convicted for mere possession of drugs for personal use. This sanction is usually reserved for dealers and those who commit crime in the furtherance of their possession.
The claim that alcohol and tobacco may cause more harm than some drugs is not a justification for legalising other dangerous substances. The pharmacology and pharmacokinetics of psychotropic substances suggest that more, not less, control of their access is warranted.
Research regularly and increasingly demonstrates the harms associated with drug use and misuse. There is uncertainty, yet growing evidence, about the long-term detrimental effects of drug use on the physical, psychological and emotional health of substance users.
It is inaccurate to suggest that the personal use of drugs has no consequential and damaging effects. Apart from the harm to the individual users, drugs affect others by addiction, violence, criminal behaviour and road accidents. Some drugs remain in the body for long periods and adversely affect performance and behaviour beyond the time of so-called ‘private’ use. Legalisation would not diminish the adverse effects associated with drug misuse such as criminal, irrational and violent behaviour and the mental and physical harm that occurs in many users.
All drugs can be dangerous including prescription and over the counter medicines if they are taken without attention to medical guidance. Recent research has confirmed just how harmful drug use can be and there is now overwhelming evidence (certainly in the case of cannabis) to make consideration of legalisation irresponsible.
The toxicity of drugs is not a matter for debate or a vote. People are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. Those who advocate freedom of choice cannot create freedom from adverse consequences.
Drug production causes huge ecological damage and crop erosion in drug producing areas.
Nearly every nation has signed the UN Conventions on drug control. Any government of signatory countries contemplating legalisation would be in breach of agreements under the UN Conventions which recognise that unity is the best approach to combating the global drug problem. The administrative burden associated with legalisation would become enormous and probably unaffordable to most governments. Legalisation would require a massive government commitment to production, supply, security and a bureaucracy that would necessarily increase the need for the employment at great and unaffordable cost for all of the staff necessary to facilitate that development.
Any government policy must be motivated by the consideration that it must first do no harm. There is an obligation to protect citizens and the compassionate and sensible method must be to do everything possible to reduce drug dependency and misuse, not to encourage or facilitate it. Any failures in a common approach to a problem would result in a complete breakdown in effectiveness. Differing and fragmented responses to a common predicament are unacceptable for the wellbeing of the international community. It is incumbent on national governments to cooperate in securing the greatest good for the greatest number.
Endorsed by: Aegis Sciences Corporation Drug Free America Foundation, Inc. National Drug-free Workplace Alliance Save Our Society From Drugs Students Taking Action Not Drugs Swiss Physicians Against Drugs The Council on Alcohol and Drugs – Atlanta, GA
Global Commission on Drug Policy Offers Inaccurate, Reckless, Vague Drug Legalization Proposal; WFAD Recommends that Current Drug Policy Should Be Improved through Innovative Linkage of Prevention, Treatment and the Criminal Justice System
A self-appointed Global Commission on Drug Policy recently released a report proposing eleven recommendations to achieve its goal of “reducing the harm caused by drugs to people and societies”.
Some the recommendations are appealing in that they advocate improving treatment, increasing youth drug use prevention, and using evidence-based practices. However, the foundation on which the Global Commission’s proposals rest is both subtle and ominous: the Commission does not seek to reduce the use of illegal drugs, but instead proposes strategies to normalize and to reduce the “harms” resulting from illegal drug use, largely through legalization and decriminalization of illegal drugs.
The drug policy recommendations of the Global Commission are a threat to public health and to public safety.
The unarticulated consequence of the Global Commission’s recommendations is that
illegal drugs would become more widely and cheaply available, inevitably leading to increased drug-caused harm. This consequence is not simply conjecture, but is based on the recent experience with the rapid rise in death rates due to the non-medical use of prescription opioids drugs that parallels their increased availability.
The World Federation Against Drugs (WFAD) supports strategies that seek to reduce illegal
drug use and the serious negative consequences that result from drug use. WFAD works to reverse the drug abuse epidemic by supporting the drug-free goal and the drug abuse prevention treaties of the United Nations.
The Global Commission’s Mischaracterization of Current Drug Policy
The Global Commission’s policy is based on inaccurate information. For instance the report states that forty years ago United States President Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs.” Nixon used the word “war” to describe the nation’s efforts to combat the rising tide of drug abuse although he was forced primarily on reducing the epidemic of heroin addiction.
The term “war on drugs” is only used today by those who mischaracterize history and US drug policy.
The Nixon Administration repealed federal mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana, and on June 17, 1971, for the first time in US history, the long-dominant law enforcement approach to drug policy, known as “supply reduction”, was augmented by an entirely new and massive commitment to prevention, intervention and treatment, known as “demand reduction”.
When President Nixon announced this new, balanced approach to drug policy it received full bipartisan support. Since that time, the idea of taking a balanced approach has enjoyed strong and sustained support through the terms of the seven US Presidents that followed.
The US drug policy is rooted in the conviction that singly, neither supply nor demand reduction can succeed, but that together they yield significant benefits that neither can achieve alone.
A careful look at history shows that it would be more accurate to say that Nixon ended, rather than that he launched, the “war on drugs.”
Second, the Global Commission claims that there is a “taboo” on debating and discussing alternative drug policy approaches and strategies. On the contrary, the balanced approach of supply reduction and demand reduction has been frequently and fully debated, discussed, and modified over time.
WFAD strongly supports the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which is committed to coordinated international efforts to reduce illegal drug use with an effective restrictive drug prevention
strategy that balances demand reduction (prevention, treatment and research) with supply reduction (law enforcement focusing on illegal drug trafficking). Working with governments, other UN bodies, and international organizations, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) works to prevent illicit drug manufacturing, diversion and trade of drugs of abuse while promoting legitimate controlled medical use of these drugs when they medically approved. The drug policy laid out by these UN organizations has been followed in countries across the globe for many decades.
The Global Commission’s Reckless Proposal Advocating Drug Legalization
The third recommendation of the Global Commission is to “Encourage experimentation by governments
with models of legal regulation of drugs (with cannabis, for example) that are designed to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”
is no description of how legalization would be structured nor an analysis of legalization proposals. The report does not even attempt to answer questions such as:
Which drugs would be legalized? Would there be any limits to legalization, or would the gates permitting use be thrown wide open? Who could buy drugs? Would the use by children and adolescents be prohibited, as is currently the policy for alcohol and tobacco products? If so, how would diversion to youth be prevented? Is it important to protect young developing brains from currently illegal drugs? Would drug production, regulation, chain of custody and taxation be regulated as are other consumer products? Could drugs be mixed with other products (e.g. marijuana in brownies, amphetamines in breakfast cereal, etc.)? Would these drugs be legal only if produced by legitimate facilities, or would anyone be permitted to produce them at home? What would the policy response be to newly emerging drugs with significant psychiatric or health consequences, such as “Krokodile”, mephedrone, methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDVP) or naphyrone? In its 1993 annual report, the International Narcotic Control Board (INCB) of the United Nations asked many similar questions about drug legalization.
Since that time, these vital questions have gone unanswered. The Global Commission offers no thoughtful answers to such questions,
recklessly proposing that countries turn themselves into guinea pigs for “experimentation” with legalization.
The Commission report is not a serious, carefully considered proposal, but a simplistic, dogmatic approach to a
complex problem that carries with it a host of unintended consequences. The social and economic costs to humanity would be profound, with its greatest impact upon the helpless, the innocent, and the naïve, while serving the causes of negligence and greed. It would be up to a subsequent generation to correct such a folly.
The Global Commission has framed its discussion of drug policy by criticizing the current costs and weaknesses in the criminal justice system, and by citing a global rising tide of drug use. This is a transparent and worn-out approach that relies on vague generalizations and neglects the very real consequences of its proposed alternative strategy, for example failing to include a wide array of drug-induced adverse consequences. When the report’s radical calls for new drug policies get down to specifics, the solutions offered involve small numbers of users (e.g. heroin-assisted treatment, syringe access “and other harm reduction measures”). One can debate the wisdom of such measures, but they do not constitute legalization and are not scalable to the size of the current drug problem. Of significant importance is that they offer no hope of rehabilitation to the drug user, providing only palliative care. The Global Commission’s report is a doctrinaire and ideological approach to the life-and-death threat of drug addiction.
The High Costs of Drug Legalization: Lessons from Alcohol and Tobacco
It is true that current drug policy needs to be improved and that both treatment and prevention need to play major roles in future drug policies. However, the mere fact that current policies leave much to be desired does not mean that legalization is a good idea. If
currently illegal drugs were made legal, rates of use, abuse and dependence would increase along with the many related social costs including unemployment and under-employment as well as the costs of health care.
The Global Commission strikingly disregards the multiple adverse consequences created by drug dependence itself, including harm associated with marijuana use, by focusing only on the “harms” imposed by the criminal justice system. The notable omission of marijuana’s effects on cognitive, medical, psychiatric, fertility, educational, employment, parenting, workplace and highway and safety leads to the inevitable conclusion that the Global Commission either chose to ignore these long-standing considerations of marijuana policy or lacked the necessary expertise for carving an informed position.
When global rates of substance use and their availability are considered, estimates of worldwide alcohol and tobacco use expose the stark difference between use of legal and illegal drugs. An estimated 40% of the world’s population aged 15 and older consumed alcohol in 2004
while an estimated 30% of the world’s adult population smoked tobacco in 2000
, a drug/delivery system with few psychological, albeit major medical risks. In comparison, about 4.8% of the world’s population (210 million) aged 15 to 64 used any of the thousands of illegal drugs including marijuana in 2009.
It is difficult to look at these numbers and not conclude that the illegal status of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine keep use rates far below those of legal drugs. Any one of these drugs, alone or combined with others, has the potential for being as widely used as alcohol and tobacco. Current statistics from the US demonstrate this.. The annual economic social costs to the US for all illegal drug use combined are outweighed by those of legal drugs, including both alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol use costs the US an estimated $235 billion.
Tobacco use costs over $193 billion each year, a combination of $96 billion in medical costs and $97 from lost productivity.
The cost of all illicit drugs combined is $193 billion annually.
The majority of these costs come from lost productivity ($120.3 billion), followed by crime including arrest, prosecution and incarceration ($61.4 billion) and health costs ($11.4 billion). It is important to note that crime-related costs comprise only 31% of the total drug costs. Medical conditions are more prevalent in patients (and their families) with a diagnosis of abuse or addiction, and yet these seemingly non-drug related medical sequelae are not factored into the health care burden.
Legalizing a currently illegal drug does not mean that everyone will become a user of that drug any more than legal alcohol and tobacco mean that everyone uses them. Also there are many ways to successfully reduce drug use in addition to making drugs illegal. While the efforts in recent decades to curb alcohol and tobacco use have resulted in impressive reductions in use and abuse, in both cases legal actions have been prominent in these efforts. In addition, even after decades of education and prevention efforts the levels of use of each of these two legal drugs far surpass those of all illegal drugs combined. If some or all of the currently illegal drugs were legalized the adverse effects of the use of these drugs would be unequal in society. The largest increases in use would likely be among young people, especially teenagers, the disadvantaged, the unemployed, the struggling student, and the mentally ill, all of whom now have higher rates of drug use initiation.
The Global Commission’s Drug Legalization Proposal and Prescription Drug Abuse
he Global Commission ignores the problem of nonmedical prescription drug use, to date
the defining drug problem of the 21stcentury. The rapid spread of prescription drug abuse, and the thousands of resulting deaths, underscores the fallacy of the Commission’s core argument for legalization, and its watered-down sidekick, decriminalization. The Global Commission suggests that illegal drug use is reasonably safe and that only law enforcement creates large social costs. Further it suggests that it is the illegality of these drugs that promotes their use and creates violence. Both production and abuse of prescription opioid drugs have risen worldwide,
as has the nonmedical use of prescription drugs. Although these drugs are prescribed to individuals for medical use, they are nonetheless widely diverted for nonmedical purposes. Prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing drug problem in the US.
This simple naturalistic experiment of prescription drugs forcefully refutes the claim of the Global Commission that drug abuse is caused by, or worsened by, the criminal justice system. There is no mafia in the prescription drug abuse epidemic. In reaching a solution to the escalating problem of prescription drug abuse, there are many roles in which the criminal justice system should be involved, from law enforcement, to prevention of physicians from profiting from running prescription “pill mills”, to prohibiting patients from giving away or selling their prescription drugs.
It is impossible to believe that legalization would reduce the problem of the nonmedical use of prescription drugs or that the public health and public safety would be promoted by removing the criminal justice system from a balanced effort to reduce the nonmedical use of these drugs. Legalization or decriminalization of this menacing nonmedical drug use would clearly worsen the problem.
The contemporary prescription drug problem reinforces the commitment of the global community and the United Nations to balanced, restrictive drug policies that include both law enforcement and treatment.
A Renewed Focus on Real Prevention and Effective Treatment is Needed
The Global Commission recommends investment in drug prevention efforts for youth. However, in placing focused importance on preventing experimental users from becoming problematic or dependent users, the Commission neglects to acknowledge that preventing and ceasing use of illegal drugs is the optimum public health goal for youth and for all individuals. One quarter of Americans who begin using any addictive substance before age 18 develop an addiction.
Prevention messages targeting youth in particular are contrary to calls for drug legalization that include implications that the vast majority of drug users are problem-free. Completely missing in their policy statement is the promising approach of healthcare procedures that incorporate opportunistic drug screening, brief interventions, and referral to treatment (SBIRT) into regular medical appointments or emergency situations for all age ranges.
The Global Commission’s recommendation of a wide range of options for treatment is similarly misguided, as illustrated by the suggestion that heroin be prescribed to addicts as an alternative treatment to stopping use of the drug. Recommending heroin maintenance neglects the simple question of what is in the best interest of the addict. Enabling continued nonmedical drug use -- especially intravenous drug use -- is harmful both to individuals and their families. It is the equivalent of recommending dispensing alcohol to alcoholics as a treatment option because it would attract alcoholics into “treatment”. It has not worked for alcoholism, and no informed professional would accept an approach that utterly fails the addicted.
A drug policy intended to reduce drug use by the government providing drugs to users makes as much sense as a policy to reduce lung cancer by the government providing cigarettes to cigarette smokers
. Considering the high death rates of heroin addicts, providing them heroin is, in a sense, palliative care, akin to admitting an end-stage cancer patient to a hospice and treating them with opioids to relieve pain until death. Although it makes no sense as a treatment for heroin dependence, the Global Commission highlights this as an innovative treatment to be widely used throughout the world. The report does not provide evidence for the success of this approach to rehabilitation of addicts.
It is only in superficial drug policy debates among ideologues that these archaic and anachronistic solutions for prevention and treatment are thought to be new, creative, forward-looking and daringly brilliant.
The best models for a future global drug policy are not found in the Netherlands, Switzerland or Portugal, as the Global Commission would have readers believe. It is found in Sweden which has pioneered the modern balanced drug policy that restricts the use of illegal drugs through criminal law and provides treatment to drug users. After meeting with Swedish officials in March 2011 at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, US Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske said,
“History has taught both of our nations that we must support robust and comprehensive drug policies which recognize we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem and that drug addiction as a disease of the brain. We are proud of our strong partnership with Sweden in supporting balanced drug strategies guided by science and research and opposing drug legalization, both within Europe and around the world…Sweden’s commitments to drug education, treatment for drug addicts, and enforcement efforts have led to significant decreases in drug use over the past three decades, and serve as a successful model for our efforts in the United States.”
A New Paradigm for the Future: Teaming Treatment & Prevention with the Criminal Justice System
he Global Commission seeks to remove the criminal justice system from drug policy. This proposal is ba
sed on the assumption that the future of global drug policy is a choice between law enforcement and treatment. Keeping the use of many addicting drugs illegal is a powerful and effective public health strategy.
The future of global drug policy is finding better, more cost-effective ways for the combined efforts of law enforcement to work with those of prevention and treatment to achieve goals that none of these efforts can achieve alone.
A strong, balanced drug prevention policy that includes but does not rely only on the criminal justice system will effectively reduce illegal drug use. By pitting the criminal justice system against treatment and prevention approaches, the Global Commission shifts the debate into a path of false dichotomies.
Major innovations in the use of the criminal justice system to reduce drug use include Drug Courts, Hawaii’s
Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE), and the 24/7 Sobriety Project.
Collectively, these programs provide close monitoring of high-risk repeat offenders in the community, with strict, comprehensive rules and regulations in place to help drug-using offenders become and remain drug-free. Drug Courts in the US increased, from one Court in Miami-Dade County, Florida in 1989 to over 2,500 in 2010.
They reflect an innovative strategy to address non-violent felony offenders who are addicted, by offering a choice between prison and treatment.
These criminal justice programs are central to effective demand reduction. They work to reduce drug use, reduce recidivism and reduce incarceration while providing long-term reductions in drug dependence and criminal behavior. They are just three examples of how the criminal justice system can use leverage to help individuals with drug and alcohol problems become and stay drug-free. This new paradigm holds the promise of changing dramatically the way drug use is approached within the criminal justice system.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy is completely wrong when it claims current drug prevention policies have failed. However, the Commission is right that current policies can be improved. This cannot be done by surrendering to this modern epidemic. Let the drug policy debate continue to grow and develop. WFAD is confident that the result of this heightened focus on all options will result in improved policies and programs that build upon, rather than abandon, the century-long global efforts to deal with the threat of nonmedical drug use.
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Nixon, R. (1979, June 17). Special message to the Congress on drug abuse prevention and control.
Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
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Nixon, R. (1979, June 17). Special message to the Congress on drug abuse prevention and control.
Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.
Retrieved October 26, 2011 from
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Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2003). Projections of Tobacco Production, Consumption and Trade to the Year 2010. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved September 8, 2011 from
Rehm, J., Mathers, C., Popova, S., Thavorncharoensap, M., Teerawattananon, Y., & Patra, J. (2009). Global burden of disease and injury and economic cost attributable to alcohol use and alcohol-use disorders.
Madras, B.K., Compton, W.M., Avula, D., Stegbauer, T., Stein, J.B., & Clark, H.W. (2009). Screening, brief interventions, referral to treatment (SBIRT) for illicit drug and alcohol use at multiple healthcare sites: Comparison at intake and 6 months later. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 99(1-3)280-95.
Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2011, March 21). White House policy director Kerlikowske meets with Swedish counterdrug officials; cites Sweden’s drug control policies as model for U.S. Washington, DC: Office of National Drug Control Policy. Retrieved September 8, 2011 from
The only explicit statement about narcotic and psychotropic drugs (henceforth drugs) in any core United Nations Human Rights Convention is Article 33 in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Protection against drugs is hence unquestionablya human rights issue. Protecting children from illicit use/production/trafficking of drugs is not an option for States Parties to the CRC. It is an obligation. Since CRC is more or less universally ratified the obligation is universal.
The paper look at the texts of relevant instrument– and not just singular Articles but the instrument as such – as well as relevant material from other legal sources, such as Treaty Monitoring Bodies and Travaux Preparatoires (Preparatory works).
The paper takes a human rights approach to the issue of children and drugs. It starts with a broad overview over international law and human rights law. It explains about the legal requirements regarding protecting children from drugs in the context of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Based on the facts presented the paper ends witha section of conclusions and options for reinforcing the protection of children against drugs.
Click here to read this paper in Portuguese Click here to read this paper in Spanish
Written by Per Johansson and Robert DuPont
Thursday, 15 October 2009 14:23
Legalizing drugs is not a new idea. It was legal drugs that prompted the more restrictive policies that are sometimes dismissed as “prohibition.” An historical, global perspective can inform the current debate on the legalization of drugs. In its modern form nonmedical drug use dates back to the 19th century in China when opium smoking was established as a major social problem. In response, the first international conference promoting drug control was held in Shanghai in 1909.