Today marks 28 years since the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly declared June 26 as the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Its stated mission is to “strengthen action and cooperation to achieve the goal of an international society free of drug abuse.” However, as the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2015 report released today shows, approximately 246 million people used an illicit drug in 2013 alone and 187,100 suffered drug-related deaths that same year, often due to a lack of access to treatment. Meanwhile, illicit drug markets and organized crime have diversified through shifting smuggling routes and the rise of the deep web.
Clearly, something is not working.
While June 26 has been used by some countries in the past to further a prohibitionist agenda and even carry out executions as part of draconian drug policies, thousands of people around the world today are saying, “Support. Don’t Punish.” In an effort to change the discourse on drug policy, the International Drug Policy Consortium has organized a global advocacy campaign that has grown from 41 participating cities in 2013 to 150 taking action today.
In New York City, dozens of people from a number of organizations including The Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Harm Reduction Coalition, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, Espolea, México Unido Contra la Delincuencia, and Transform gathered in front of the U.N. Headquarters demanding reform for a system that is broken. For decades, countries caught in a vicious cycle of violence, law enforcement abuses, money laundering, corruption, and environmental degradation as a result of drug trafficking have been asking the same question over and over again. How do we win the war on drugs?
The short answer is, you can’t.
Prohibition has failed and the evidence is overwhelming. Not only has the 44-year-old drug war managed to gobble up a trillion dollars in taxpayer money since 1971, but it has also given the U.S. the highest incarceration in the world, led to over 100,000 deaths in Mexico, and militarized police forces that disproportionately target poor people and people of color.
Ironically, today is also the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture and its theme this year is “Right to Rehabilitation.” Part of its statement reads that “trauma reaches far beyond the direct victims and in some instances, where torture has been used in a systematic and widespread manner, whole societies are affected.” When “torture” can be replaced with “the drug war” in the statement above, it means we are in a serious need for a paradigm shift.
Drug abuse is NOT “public enemy number one” as Nixon once said, but a health issue that should be addressed through harm reduction initiatives and science-based education that removes stigma and provides accurate information on drugs.
Prohibition did NOT work for alcohol and it is not working now. Portugal has been ahead of the game for years since it decriminalized all drugs in 2001; and unlike prohibitionists’ scare campaigns, the results have shown lower HIV cases among drug users, almost no drug overdoses, and lower drug use overall.
In anticipation of the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) in 2016, we are at a strategic and important time of momentum building so that when government officials and policy makers come together in New York next year our message is clear.
The drug war has failed. Reform, support, and don’t punish.
Laura Krasovitzky is a media intern with the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)