War on drugs a costly failure

timescolonist.com – News/Editorial
June 29, 2010

After 40 years of failure in dealing with drug abuse as a criminal problem, it’s time to listen to the experts and recognize it as a health issue. Two health policy groups based in this province have helped launched an international effort to tackle the damage done by drug abuse and addiction in a new way. The principle being advanced by the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy is simple.

Using a scientific approach, determine what works to reduce the damage done to individuals and societies, and what doesn’t. Then do those things that are effective and quit doing those that are ineffective — or worse, destructive.

The fact that this proposal is controversial shows how completely illogical the drug policy debate has become.

The groups and the International AIDS Society have drafted what they are calling the Vienna Declaration in advance of next month’s AIDS conference in that city.

The effort to address drug abuse and addiction and the resulting crime, health and social problems has not only failed, but had negative consequences, the declaration states. “The criminalization of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences,” it says.

The consequences of the current failure can be seen around the world — in Mexico, where drug gangs wage vicious war; in Afghanistan, where opium production helps fund the Taliban’s war effort; in the U.S., where billion are spent on enforcement efforts and in jails.

And in Victoria, where addiction is responsible for 90 per cent of property crime and much of the street disorder.

The current policies are enormously expensive and have been totally ineffectual.

The declaration proposes “the redirection of the vast financial resources towards where they are needed most: Implementing and evaluating evidence-based prevention, regulatory, treatment and harm reduction interventions.”

Criminalizing drug use simply has not worked. The “war on drugs” was officially launched 39 years ago by then-U.S. president Richard Nixon. After decades of effort by police, drugs are more readily available, cheaper and of better quality than ever. Drug profits have fuelled the growth of organized crime. Addiction has claimed millions of victims. Jails are overflowing and countless families lives have been shattered.

A science-based approach doesn’t mean a free and open drug trade. But it would likely see a regulated supply of drugs and decriminalization of the user. And the approach is neither radical or untested. Portugal decriminalized all drug use in 2001, with positive results.

In any case, continuing down the same path would be stupid. The war on drugs has wasted taxpayers’ money for no public benefit and, in fact, increased the damage done by drugs.

Drug policies shaped by ideology, politics and prejudice have failed. It’s time to deal with drug use as a health and social policy issue, with decisions based on fact-based assessment of their effectiveness.

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