Wars on drugs don't work

11:45 am on 13 April 2016

The war on the war on drugs, eh? That's a lot of warring.

Next week New York is expected to witness a crucible of sorts for the prohibitionist, punitive global stance against drugs, as encapsulated in the idea of a war against a noun. The United Nations General Assembly will host a Special Session (UNGASS) "on the world drug problem" the first such gathering since 1998, when countries emerged singing from the same hymn-sheet; their mantra, "A drug-free world: we can do it." Specifically, the goal was to eradicate illegal drug use by 2008.

And did they?

They did not. Illegal drug use has increased markedly.

So the approach was a failure?

Not necessarily.

For whom did it succeed?

It worked very nicely for the barons, traffickers and dealers of drugs - as long as they didn't get caught. A recent, moderate estimate suggests the global black market in drugs has a turnover of more than $US320 billion annually, while the cost to taxpayers around the world in attempting to staunch it is about $US100bn a year - roughly what is spent on foreign aid.

Even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime - the closest thing you'll find to a fleet admiral in the war on drugs - has acknowledged the crisis, in the shape of a "dramatic unintended consequence: a criminal market of staggering proportions."

And so the world is changing its mind?

Many countries have been moving away from the idea that criminalisation is the way to go. Even much of the United States, formerly at the vociferous vanguard of the war on drugs, has changed its tune, with a handful of states having legalised marijuana and half a dozen more to vote on the question this year, including its most populous state, California. President Barack Obama is one of many leaders who now argue that in tackling the issue of drugs, we are better to "see it as a public health problem and not a criminal problem".

Where, by the way, is Donald Trump on drugs?

No one is suggesting Donald Trump is on drugs. He's just naturally idiosyncratic.

No. What is his position on the approach to drugs?

Ah, OK. As in a number of areas, his stance has, let's say, evolved. In 1990 he said drugs should be legalised to "take the profit away from those drugs czars". He now backs the status quo.

Beyond America, which countries have changed their approaches?

At least half a dozen countries in Latin America have either liberalised, or signalled their intention to liberalise, drug laws. Canada intends to legalise recreational use of cannabis. Formally and informally, many parts of Europe permit marijuana use. The most interesting example, however, is Portugal.

How so?

Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001, diverting budgets previously targeted on policing drug use to drug health and education programmes. Over 15 years, in marked contrast to the global trend, it has seen a drop in HIV and Hepatitis C infections, as well as a 15 percent decrease in youth addiction rates. It is one of few positive examples cited by the Lancet-Hopkins report.

The which-what report?

Published late last month, the report co-authored by 22 experts for the Johns Hopkins-Lancet Commission on Public Health and International Drug Policy, found that punitive policies prosecuted under the War on Drugs banner, which had no scientific basis, had "evidently failed", pointing to its impact on health and criminality among other things.

So the world is rethinking its approach?

Not everywhere, not by a longshot. Swathes of Asia and Africa are steadfast against change. Russia remains determinedly opposed to liberalisation, and has led opposition to any shift in the UNGASS message. The death penalty for drug offences remains in countries including Iran, Indonesia and China. Indeed, according to reports last week, punishments in China for drug offenders are becoming more draconian.

Apart from some tweaking in the language regarding the wider eradication ambition, there is zero chance that UNGASS will redress the conventions that ban drugs - that would require unanimity among the gathered states.

Is anything actually likely to come out of these talks then?

Sure: that most perennial of commitments to come out of talks.

And that is?

More talks.

An exercise in futility, then?

Not necessarily. There are likely to be impassioned speeches that grab attention around the world. Latin American countries are expected to issue a minority report in defiance of the official version. Some predict the conference will amount to an exercise in hypocrisy, but optimists foresee a turning point - a "milestone" in the wider debate.

Hardly a "war on the war of drugs", either way.

Fair point.

So that was a clickbait headline?

We prefer to think of it as a gateway headline.

What of plucky little New Zealand and UNGASS?

Yes, our guy's going.

What'll he say?

Dunne is in broad support of a liberalising approach, though he has acknowledged that the realpolitik limits the potential for major change. Even a couple of years ago, however, Dunne said, "the war on drugs is dead - I think it was silly to ever use that language."

When did the "war on drugs" idea originate?

Crackdowns on the sales and use of drugs go way back, but it was under Richard Nixon's presidency that it became widely thought of as a war. In 1973 the Drug Enforcement Administration announced "an all-out global war on the drug menace".

Some say there was an ulterior motive, motivated by racism or loathing for opponents to the war in Vietnam. But that's all crazy conspiracy talk, right?

Very possibly. And yet, get this: in the April edition of Harper's magazine, as part of an essay calling for the legalisation of drugs, Dan Baum quotes a former senior Nixon adviser, John Ehrlichman, as saying: "You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

Sum it up in 25 words.

Inspired by the analysis of South Park's Mr Mackey - "Drugs are bad, mkay?" - the warriors against drugs are readying to fight off the liberalising invaders.

And in five?

The jaw jaw on drugs.

Toby Toby stamp

* This column is part of a weekly series published every Wednesday, by graphic artist Toby Morris and journalist Toby Manhire.