Top Medical Experts Argue That "War On Drugs" Has Created Public Health Risks

The war on drugs may be in the interests of public health, but studies suggest it actually does more harm than good. Couperfield/Shutterstock
Ben Taub 24 Mar 2016, 17:27

The effectiveness of the so-called war on drugs – the global campaign to prohibit narcotics and prosecute those who use and sell them – is often hotly debated. As the UN prepares for a major vote on international drug policy, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers has presented evidence that current strategies only increase public health risks, generating massive increases in infectious diseases, overdoses, and homicides. Based on their findings, the authors claim it is time for global drug policy to take a new direction, urging an end to the war on drugs.

Consisting of biologists, lawyers, campaigners, and a range of other experts from across the world, the Johns Hopkins-Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health has expressed concern that current drug policies are “not scientifically grounded.” It has therefore “sought to examine the emerging scientific evidence on public health issues arising from drug-control policy,” publishing its report today in The Lancet.

Among the most significant findings is the fact that criminal persecution of drug users appears to be driving the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. This is largely caused by the unsafe sharing of needles, as injectors are often denied access to safe syringes in countries where funding is directed toward imprisoning drug users rather than setting up needle-exchange centers.

Consequently, 30 percent of all HIV transmissions outside of sub-Saharan Africa are thought to be caused by unsafe injection. This statistic is even higher in countries with particularly harsh drug laws, and has been estimated at 67 percent in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Similarly, the sharing of needles in prison – where access to clean syringes is particularly scarce – has been shown to contribute considerably to the spread of such diseases, especially in countries with severe custodial sentences for drug users. For instance, in Thailand, where narcotics-related offenses can result in lifetime imprisonment, 56 percent of hepatitis C infections are thought to occur in prison, while in Scotland, where similar offenses draw shorter sentences, this figure is only 5 percent.

According to one study, 90 percent of incarcerated Indonesian drug users have shared needles with other prisoners, with 78 percent saying they share a single syringe with more than 10 people.

Presently, most countries dedicate more resources to incarcerating drug users than setting up harm-reduction facilities. Martin Haas/Shutterstock

Other problems created by the war on drugs include a drastic increase in violence in regions where illicit substances are produced and transported. As competition for control of illegal trafficking routes intensified in Mexico following the government’s pledge to eradicate drugs in 2006, homicide rates soared. In the state of Chihuahua, for instance, murder rates became so high that the average life expectancy for men was lowered by about five years between 2008 and 2010.

Offering a possible solution to these and other public health problems generated by the war on drugs, the Commission points to successful examples of governments alleviating these issues by decriminalizing drugs. The most famous such case is that of Portugal, which removed criminal sanctions from individual use and possession of all drugs in 2001.

This meant that drug users were now able to access treatment and other harm-reduction facilities such as needle-exchange programs, with the result that HIV transmission among injectors fell from more than 800 in 2003 to less than 100 in 2012.

Based on these findings, the report urges UN member states set to vote at next month’s General Assembly Special Session to end the war on drugs. In its place, they hope to see more resources dedicated to offering harm-reduction services to drug users, as well as the establishment of government-controlled drug markets, thereby taking the profits out of the hands of criminals and gangsters.

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