A comment on drug policies on the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking

26th June 2020


Axel Klein, Global Drug Observatory, Swansea University
Blaine Stothard, Independent Consultant

June 26 marks two major events in the drug policy calendar. The formal event is the launch of the UNODC’s World Drug Report 2020. It will contain statistics on drug seizures, drug arrests, emerging substances and user groups, grants made and technical support delivered. Repeating the increasingly disputed target of 'the world drugs problem', it will discuss interventions and interceptions, the role of criminal justice, police and military units. It is an account of activities and data, it will not include reflections of how relevant the aims of the Conventions which UNODC implements are, nor of the effectiveness and impact of UNODC’s work and the activity described. Common to the various treaties and Conventions intended to inhibit and eradicate the production, trade and use of ‘illicit’ substances, the Report will not provide space for reflection or evaluation. The Report will be a feature of the International Day against drug abuse and illicit trafficking. As with the continued presence in the associated international Conventions of the term narcotics, the terminology is misleading and inaccurate. But it sets a tone.

The prohibition strategy adopted by UNODC as part of the response to ‘the world drug problem’  is frequently referred to as The War on Drugs, a US campaign initiated by Richard Nixon in 1971. The ‘war’ aspect is visually demonstrated by the preponderance of military and law enforcement uniforms on display at the UNODC’s annual Commission on Narcotic Drugs meetings in Vienna. In spite of the spin, the war on drugs is, in practice, a war on drug users and those they live amongst. The most enthusiastic supporters of this war wage it in military terms outside their own territory, in domestic terms against large numbers of their own populations. The war on drugs represents both a further mutation of colonialism, the use of power against others, and the quieter but no less deadly operation as a form of internal colonisation. Both aspects assume a superiority which provides an entitlement to oppress and subjugate, with a large portion of racism. These are legitimised and transformed into a rationale by the use of treaty making internationally and law and the criminal justice system internally.

Conventions and treaties intended to control the use of illegal drugs and the harms that strategy designers ascribe to them in reality compound any inherent harms the substances might present and create new and unforeseen harms and damages beyond prohibitionists' wildest dreams. Individuals have become subservient to ideology, however discredited, the vast numbers of deaths resulting from the war on drugs have become regarded as collateral damage and of only affecting disposable populations, while human rights are seen as an irrelevance. Those who continue to claim consensus support for their approaches and the damage they cause are becoming more stubborn and entrenched in their attitudes and actions. Neo-colonialism and all its attitudes of superiority and entitlement lives on.

UNODC’s largest item of expenditure is for military and police forces and associated equipment and technology.  While early reasons given for creating a set of international institutions and law to prohibit and combat drugs (that is, substances which some people use because they enjoy doing so), more recently some nations eager to flex their geo-political muscles are attempting to use those institutions and legal framework to (further) reduce the availability of essential medicines. This is often linked to those nations’ experience of non-medical use of some drugs. Rather than identify and respond to such situations domestically, efforts are made to use the international institutions to intensify the restrictions on essential medicines for countries that do not themselves produce them. This aspect of the prohibition approach leaves many populations and nations without adequate access to pain-killing and anaesthetic medicines.

These contexts and the complete failure of the system to achieve any of its intended aims have been and are identified and campaigned against by many civil society organisations and by other UN bodies. Truth may well be being spoken to power, but this approach is frustrated when ‘power’ is deaf to arguments and fact. The global order on drugs no longer enjoys international consensus.

So on the same day, Support Not Punish will launch its annual Global Day of Action, which aims to mobilise people all over the world to stand in solidarity with those affected and persecuted by the prohibition strategies. As well as pointing out the short-comings and damage of the strategies, Support Not Punish adds it voice to the increasing numbers offering sustainable and effective alternatives that advance the health and well-being of all, with decriminalisation and harm reduction at their core. As many commentators have point out, there are alternatives, not least a focus on harm reduction rather than harm production, the effect such commentators ascribe to the current international strategies.

Editors of Drugs and Alcohol Today journal