Despite continued calls for a ceasefire, the war on drugs is still escalating across the world. In the Philippines, for instance, the ultra-strict approach adopted by new president Rodrigo Duterte has resulted in the execution of more than 2,500 people for drug-related activities in the past two months alone. Meanwhile, the UK recently introduced a draconian new law banning all psychoactive substances, while government officials also took the highly controversial step of closing down one of London’s most famous nightclubs following the deaths of two young party-goers.
One definition of insanity is repeating the same actions and expecting a different outcome, which is why an ever-increasing number of drug policy activists are labelling this zero-tolerance stance as madness. In its place, they call for an evidence-based approach to the global drugs issue, built upon facts and rationality rather than ideology.
Critics say the war on drugs increases crime and violence by placing control of drugs markets in the hands of cartels and street dealers. swa182/Shutterstock
The war on drugs is not reducing drug-related deaths
The UN first launched its war on drugs back in 1961, before renewing its commitment to wiping narcotics off the face of the Earth in 1998. Yet despite the unimaginable sums of money spent on this campaign, levels of drug use – and, more importantly, the dangers associated with this drug use – have not been curbed.
A report released this month by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK reveals that the number of deaths caused by drug misuse rose for a third successive year in 2015, reaching an all-time high at 43.8 deaths per million people. Of these, 67 percent involved illegal drugs, with opioids such as heroin and morphine being responsible for almost half of these fatal incidents.
Niamh Eastwood, executive director of drug policy reform charity Release, responded to this report by blaming many of these deaths on the British government’s hardline approach, which she says “goes against all the evidence for best practice in drug treatment, and is contributing, we believe, to this shameful rise in deaths.”
For instance, she points to the fact that the criminalization of opioid drugs prevents many addicts from being able to seek treatments like opioid substitution therapy, whereby synthetic drugs like methadone are supplied in place of heroin, allowing users to bypass the minefield of impurity-riddled street drugs.
Drugs are more dangerous when they’re illegal
Speaking of impurities, compounds like fentanyl – which is around 10 times stronger than heroin – are often mixed in with street drugs, yet because dealers don’t tend to disclose the ingredients of their merchandise, users are often totally unaware of what they are actually taking. According to David Nutt, director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London and former Chair of the British government’s Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs, the war on drugs itself is largely responsible for the prevalence of these impurities.
For example, a global crackdown on some of the key ingredients used to produce ecstasy tablets between 2000 and 2010 caused underground manufacturers to alter their methods slightly, resulting in the sale of pills that contained a compound called PMA instead of MDMA. Although virtually identical in chemical structure, the accepted safe dosage of MDMA is often lethal when substituted for PMA.
Impurities are far from the only danger that is increased by the war on drugs. A report released earlier this year in the Lancet provided strong evidence that global bans on drug use are proliferating the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, as addicts are unable to obtain clean syringes and are therefore often forced to share needles. According to the report, around a third of new HIV transmissions outside of sub-Saharan Africa are currently caused by unsafe injection.
Unsafe drug injection is a major driver of global HIV infections. PrinceOfLove/Shutterstock
How can drug safety be improved?
The closure of the popular London nightclub Fabric has highlighted many of the problems with the current global drug policy, and sparked a major debate among policymakers and scientists alike. One of Europe’s most iconic rave destinations, Fabric had its license revoked in September 2016 following the deaths of two teenagers on its premises as a result of drug overdoses. However, writing in the Guardian, Nutt points out that simply closing down venues where deaths occur doesn’t actually protect anyone, since it does nothing to stop impure drugs from being produced, sold, and consumed elsewhere.
As an alternative, he calls for drug testing in clubs, similar to the Drug Information and Monitoring System (DIMS) that currently exists in the Netherlands. This service allows anyone to have their drugs tested for impurities without having to worry about being arrested for possession. Thanks to the DIMS, no one in the Netherlands was killed by the recent lethal batch of "Superman" ecstasy pills that caused a number of deaths in other European countries where drug testing is not allowed.
London nightclub Fabric was closed down following two drug-related deaths – but will this actually increase public safety? Carl Court / Getty
Would a change of policy actually work?
The biggest concern of most prohibitionists is that relaxing the war on drugs would make it easier for people to access certain substances, leading to a massive increase in use. However, all available evidence suggests that this is not the case. In Portugal, for instance, all drugs were decriminalized in 2001 in a desperate attempt to curb spiraling addiction rates. Since then, levels of drug use in Portugal have fallen to below the European average, while a report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction concluded that decriminalizing drugs does not lead to increased use.
As a result of this policy shift, Portuguese drug users were able to begin seeking help and medical attention when needed, without fear of legal repercussions. This facilitated the establishment of needle exchange programs and safe injection rooms, leading to a decrease in new HIV infections from more than 1,000 in 2001 to just 56 in 2012.
While the likes of Duterte and new British Prime Minister Theresa May continue to endorse prohibition and the relentless persecution of drugs and drug users, the hard evidence clearly suggests that a change of tack may be in the best interests of public health and safety.