The war over the war on drugs

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The war on drugs draws strong opinions from almost everyone but most fall in two one of two camps; those who can’t fathom a world of legalized addicts and vow to continue the fight, and those on the the other side: with the “just legalize it”-esque slogans and questionable appeals to the freedom of ingestion.

The latter have something of an image problem. A heretical atmosphere surrounds the debate over drugs reform in the UK and unfortunately every pro-legalization herbalist in Hyde Park on April 20th is ammunition for the politicians and tabloids, used indiscriminately to hole the arguments of anyone who dare speak out against current drug policy, no matter how reasonable their point.

In the United States, home to the much publicised decriminalization bills passed over the last few years, even Obama has offered support to evidence based reform. Gil Kerlikowske, the US Director of The Office of National Drug Control Policy was quoted saying “drug policy must be rooted in science” but no such talk seems to be coming from Number 10. The status quo is firmly entrenched and those in opposition, regardless of their stance, are dealt accusations of social irresponsibility at best and of being in league with the drug-pushers at worst (see the tabloid reaction to the dismissal of Professor David Nutt in 2009). Opposition in the UK is aimed not only at policy reform but at the mere suggestion that more research might be needed.

His Excellency Mauricio Rodríguez Múnera, Colombian Ambassador to the UK, has seen the effects of current drug policy with far more acuity than most politicians and in his view, both sides need to reassess their position. Speaking personally at an IRSoc event, he noted that whilst Colombia is one of the few places in the world that has seen a reduction in the production of narcotics as a result of the war on drugs, its experiences are hardly representative. He claims that even a brief look at the figures reveals that it’s been a huge failure. Global drug consumption and production hasn’t fallen at all, 60 thousand people have died in Mexico alone over the last 6 years and the cost rises every year. The solution he argues, will come from academia and it’s hard to disagree.

What is needed is a process led “not by politicians but by scientists, academics and experts”. The core of his argument is that that the process of reform should be gradual and backed by scientific evidence at all stages. Currently in the UK, we criminalize 80 thousand users a year and whilst the tide appears to be turning with regards to decriminalization (Spain, Portugal, Switzerland and the Netherlands have already made moves in that direction), the next steps are highly uncertain.

Decriminalization is an obvious step. All the evidence suggests that it doesn’t increase drug use and comes with obvious financial and social benefits. Beyond that though, only research will yield answers and research will only be funded and listened to if the pro-reform movement can lose its hippy image and resulting stigma. Immediate and complete legalization (as it so often posed by some as the “obvious solution”) would be exceedingly risky – criminals would quickly find other potentially more destabilizing ventures, drug use could explode and the potential social cost is vast.

Those on both sides of the argument need to come to agreement that, as with all areas of public policy, the debate needs to be handed to the scientists and the results interpreted without prejudice and with the public interest in mind. Those who argue loudly for legalization with little evidence to hand are as much a restraint on progress as those on the other side by making themselves an easy target for legislators and lobbyists who wish to see the debate quashed before it begins.

According to Rodríguez, with a UN review approaching in 2016 the next few years will be a turning point in the battle against drug addiction and it’s important that we realise the need for a reasoned debate.

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