Medical Experts Press UN on Decriminalization

A group of 22 medical experts convened by Johns Hopkins University and The Lancet, Britain's foremost medical journal, on March 24 issued a call for the decriminalization of all non-violent drug use and possession, flatly calling the international War on Drugs a failure.

The paper by the Johns Hopkins-Lancet Commission on Public Health and International Drug Policy (PDF) calls on the world's governments to "move gradually toward regulated drug markets and apply the scientific method to their assessment." Dr. Chris Beyrer, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the senior author of the report, told the CBC: "We've had three decades of the War on Drugs, we've had decades of zero-tolerance policy. It has had no measurable impact on supply or use, and so as a policy to control substance use it has arguably failed. It has evidently failed."

The experts conclude that the prohibitionist policies of the past 50 years "directly and indirectly contribute to lethal violence, disease, discrimination, forced displacement, injustice and the undermining of people’s right to health." They cite the "striking increase" in homicides in Mexico since the government militarized its crackdown on the cartels in 2006. The increase has been so dramatic that experts have had to revise life expectancy downward in that country.

The report finds that "excessive use" of incarceration in drug enforcement is the "biggest contribution" to higher rates of HIV and hepatitis C infection among drug users. It also points to stark racial disparities in drug enforcement, particularly in the U.S., and human rights violations arising from enforcement, including an increase in the torture and abuse of prisoners in Mexico.

"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 Dr. Beyrer in a statement quoted by the Washington Post.

The report comes ahead of a UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem to be held in April, and notes that the last time the UN held a special session on drugs, in 1998, it set itself the goal of a "drug-free world" by 2008. "The idea that all drug use is dangerous and evil has led to enforcement-heavy policies and has made it difficult to see potentially dangerous drugs in the same light as potentially dangerous foods, tobacco and alcohol, for which the goal of social policy is to reduce potential harms," the report finds.

For a role model, the authors point to Portugal, which has decriminalized possession of all drugs. HIV transmission, hepatitis C and incarcerations have all decreased there—with a 15 percent decline in youth drug use. 

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