UN day against “drug abuse” gets it all wrong

By Nicholas Caivano, Policy Analyst, and Richard Elliott, Executive Director, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

June 29, 2017

As the world again marks the United Nation’s “International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking,” too many UN member states are still missing the point — namely, that drugs are primarily a health issue and not a matter for the criminal justice system.

June 26 has become synonymous with outdated, punitive drug policies adopted in the absurd fantasy that they will bring about a “drug-free world.” After all, this was the implicit goal when this commemorative day debuted three decades ago.

In many countries, governments have “celebrated” June 26 with an orgy of violence, vilification and misinformation. In the past, some made a show of executing people for alleged drug offences, contrary to international human rights law. Many brag about drug busts and the quantities of drugs seized, despite this having no lasting positive effects. Some government leaders seize the day to further demonize drugs and people who use them. In some countries, government authorities spread falsehoods denying the need for, and benefits of, evidence-based drug treatment options and harm reduction services.

But prosecutions and punishments don’t actually put an end to drug use or drug markets. And they certainly do nothing to assist people whose drug use is problematic and who need support of various kinds, from housing to basic health care to addiction treatment that is evidence-based and respects personal dignity and autonomy.

For this reason, in 2013, the International Drug Policy Consortium launched “Support. Don’t Punish.,” a growing global counter-campaign to challenge this harmful June 26 orthodoxy.

Many governments are also questioning the damaging worldview that prohibition is the way to deal with drugs. Canada has taken some important steps in this direction, such as restoring federal support for harm reduction services, repealing a law that hindered supervised injection services, and introducing legislation that would decriminalize and regulate cannabis.

But a deeper rethinking of drug policy at home and abroad is needed, including decriminalizing the possession for personal consumption of all drugs. This is not a radical idea: a substantial body of evidence demonstrates that drug prohibition is failing to achieve both the health and safety goals of prohibition, while simultaneously damaging public health and human rights. The failed “war on drugs” has, for years, entrenched and exacerbated systematic discrimination against people who use drugs, and at tremendous cost to taxpayers. In Canada, for example, racialized communities — specifically Indigenous and Black people — are disproportionately charged, prosecuted and incarcerated under laws that criminalize people who use drugs.

Addressing blood-borne infections among people who use drugs is another compelling reason for decriminalization; resources are better directed into health and social services. The sharing of injecting equipment is a major driver of the worldwide HIV and hepatitis C virus (HCV) epidemics. Criminalizing and policing drug possession make it more likely that someone will use non-sterile equipment, thereby increasing the risk of acquiring or transmitting infections.

Meanwhile, treating people who use drugs — whether for therapeutic purposes, enjoyment, or in a way that can be considered harmful — as criminals reinforces stigma and discrimination, including in the context of health care.

And those who do live with drug dependence have a right to obtain lifesaving health services without fear of punishment or discrimination.

Canada’s move to legalize and regulate the possession of cannabis as of next year is an encouraging sign of a sorely needed new approach to drug policy for the country. But in the face of the harms produced or worsened by drug prohibition, a far bolder step is in order. Canada needs to look beyond cannabis, and consider not only decriminalizing the possession of all substances for personal consumption, but also carefully regulating the supply. An unregulated, criminalized market means people are also more likely to obtain drugs of unknown composition and potency — as the ongoing devastation of the current overdose crisis in Canada and the US tragically illustrates.

Considering the bleak outcomes of our current crime and punishment framework, it’s clear we’re in need of a global shift in drug policy thinking. Instead of an international day against “drug abuse and illicit trafficking,” we need a “UN day against regressive drug policy.” UN member states, including Canada, need to turn the page on prohibition, and instead experiment with different approaches to drugs and drug policy that are rooted in scientific evidence, public health principles and human rights. Now that would be worth commemorating.