Punitive measures do not create a drug-free society

[Read original article in the Bangkok Post, 14 December 2016.]

Achieving a society without drugs has been the objective of many countries around the world for many decades, including Asean with its declaration in 1998 for a drug-free region by 2015. Yet drug use prevalence has, at best, remained stable over almost two decades according to the United Nations.

Moreover, pursuing the agenda of a drug-free society is not without tragic consequences. In many cases such efforts have ended up destroying more lives than the drugs themselves, undermining the social fabric of the communities that are meant to be protected. People themselves know, as they witness the continued widespread existence of drugs and the impunity of organized crime, that punitive approaches have failed.

Indeed, a repressive environment has not proved to curb drug use. It has, however, forced people who use drugs to engage in riskier behaviors. Higher transmission rates of infectious diseases such as HIV, increased levels of violence in communities, and more money in the hands of organized crime are among the many negative consequences of drug policies heavily weighted in favor of criminalization.  We should also mention the wasted resources when tough law enforcement is chosen over prioritizing health and social services, as well as overcrowded prisons and overburdened criminal justice systems. Yet the drug market continues to grow.

In 2002-2003, Thailand embarked on a veritable war against drugs, engaging in extrajudicial killings. Vast destruction of opium production has caused a heavy decline in opioid consumption as prices soared  — but users did not stop consuming. Instead, the country experienced a rise in the use of methamphetamines and has now become one of the largest markets for methamphetamine pills. Today, the country is considering focusing on harm reduction rather than prohibition as a pathway to addressing the situation.

We all hope to create a better future for our children. This is why we work to promote a humane and evidence-based drug policy: one that is ready to provide the appropriate response in the real world, where drugs exist and drug use shouldn’t be considered a crime.

Indeed, the Global Commission on Drug Policy suggests decriminalization is the best response to drugs—based on solid, objective and scientific evidence. By decriminalization, we mean lifting all penalties of any kind for people using or possessing drugs for personal use, and finding alternatives to incarceration and criminal punishment for low-level players (user-dealers, mules, cultivators), such as counseling, community service, social integration, or awareness workshops. Decriminalization not only respects individual rights, and allows people to take responsibility for their actions and control of their lives, but has also proven to be the most effective and pragmatic approach to reducing the harms associated with drugs, for individuals and communities, wherever it has been implemented.

What about abstinence? The Global Commission does not deny that abstinence may be desirable and achievable for some people who use drugs. However, insisting on abstinence alone ignores the realities of drug dependence, and the underlining social, economic and environmental factors that can be core drivers of drug use

Forced abstinence and drug detoxification as portrayed in the video represent methods rejected by 12 UN agencies in 2012 as both ineffective and a violation of human rights: in China and Thailand, more than two-thirds of users pushed into rehabilitation centers relapse within a year of release. On the other hand, measures such as consumption centers and substitution therapies have proven far more effective in increasing rates of rehabilitation, and reducing harms for themselves and to society. They also prevent people from being alienated, marginalized, and stigmatized.

People who use drugs are wrongly characterized as all being dependent—“addicts”.

Why insist on pursing punitive policies? Why repeat the same actions again and again, and expect different results? The Global Commission on Drug Policy calls on ASEAN representatives to implement a work plan that will achieve the objective, not of a drug-free society but of stable and secure communities. Policies that deal with realities rather than hiding or ignoring them, that empower young people to tackle the challenges of life and allow them to prosper, that integrate rather than stigmatize individuals, and that allow all a chance to succeed. In other words, we call on you to implement pragmatic policies that accept the reality of drugs, and that can therefore be most effective in mitigating the harms associated with them.