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Replacing the War on Drugs: it is time for sensible drug policies
Peace and war take many forms. When US President Nixon declared a War on Drugs in 1971 it sounded like a swift concerted effort after which there would be peace, something better than what was before. But nearly five decades later, we see that the war on drugs has become both a war on the people who take them and an arms race with organized crime — defending its most lucrative commodity — which has cost hundreds of thousand their lives. The War on Drugs was not won and it is beyond time to replace it with sensible and realistic drug policies that have been proven to work by some countries and need to be applied globally.
To achieve change in his home region, he convened the West Africa Commission on Drugs which he then asked me to chair. We have since called on political leaders in West Africa to act together to change drug laws that have not worked. The West African Commission went further and developed a tool for policymakers to achieve the necessary changes.
Our countries face three inter-related dangers from illegal drug trafficking. First, there is the threat from drug-funded corruption. But this is a problem in our countries beyond the issue of drugs and we need to confront this in all aspects of our institutions and public life. Second, there is the risk that drug traffickers may link up with other criminal elements or, worse, extremist groups. We need to counter organised crime in all its different forms, be it the trafficking of drugs, of humans, of arms or money laundering. But again this is a bigger issue than drug policy and we need to come together as a region to tackle it. Third, there is the harmful impact on the health and social cohesion of local communities caused by growing drug consumption. This third point is within the realm of our national drug laws.
But we are currently increasing the harms rather than helping to reduce them. Harsh drug laws threaten long prison sentences for people in possession of drugs for their personal consumption. They are applied disproportionately to the poor, uneducated and the vulnerable. Many say these harsh laws are needed as a deterrent. However, it has been shown that increasing a sentence for drug use does not lead to reduction in consumption. Our laws are also overly strict on the medical use of opioids. This has led to a situation where pain and suffering goes untreated. Millions of terminal cancer patients in our countries are suffering indescribable pain because doctors are afraid they will be seen as drug dealers if they prescribe them medicine that would bring relief.
But we are currently increasing the harms rather than helping to reduce them.
This has to stop. We need modern drug policies, which balance the need for access to essential medicines with reducing the harms of illegal drugs. We have developed a Model Drug Law as a practical tool to change our national drug laws. It gives concrete templates that countries can adapt. It provides explanations as to why these legal provisions are proposed and how they comply with international law.
We look forward to presenting and discussing the Model Drug Law for West Africa at the Paris Peace Forum and to work with you towards its adoption as a step towards more peaceful and prosperous societies.