We have waged war on drugs for a century. So who won?

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Dr Alex Wodak, Australia21 Director and President of the Australian Law Reform Foundation

Dr Alex Wodak

Extrajudicial killings in the Philippines show global drug prohibition has turned out to be an expensive way of making a bad problem much worse, writes Australia21 Director Dr Alex Wodak.

This opinion piece first appeared in The Guardian on 29 May 2017.

While Rodrigo Duterte was campaigning to be elected president of the Philippines last year, he said on many occasions that he would arrange, if elected, for people who sold or used drugs to be killed. Extrajudicial killings began even before his inauguration, with victims usually shot and then drugs and guns planted to make it look like the assailants had acted in self-defence. A 77-page application last month by a lawyer, Jude Sabio – requesting the international criminal court to commence a preliminary investigation – estimated that at least 9,400 people have already been killed by police and vigilantes. According to Sabio, most of the victims were “poor young men, but also bystanders, children and political opponents”. The killings were briefly halted in January after police killed a South Korean businessman, but have since restarted.

Governments in many countries carry out extrajudicial killings, almost always for military or national security reasons and rarely targeting people who use or sell drugs. An exception is what happened in Thailand in 2003, when Thaksin Shinawatra was prime minister, and an estimated 3,000 people accused of using or selling drugs were murdered without legal process. More than a decade later, under the current rule of a military junta, the legal and military elite is slowly reforming Thailand’s drug laws. The painful memories of the extrajudicial killings of 2003 are a major factor in the drug law reform now taking place in Thailand.

So far, with the exception of praise from the US president, Donald Trump, there has been strong international condemnation of the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, including from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The United Nations human rights council voted 45-1 to urge the Philippines to desist.

Yet while extrajudicial killings have received international attention, the extremism of Duterte’s other drug policies – measures including the reinstatement of the death penalty for drug offences, the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility to as low as 10, and mandatory drug testing in schools and workplaces – have been largely ignored.

The unpalatable fact for policymakers everywhere is that extrajudicial killings of people who use drugs would never occur without the sanction of a global drug prohibition, a system that started with an international meeting convened by the US in Shanghai in 1909. A series of such meetings culminated in three international drug treaties (in 1961, 1971 and 1988) approved by almost every nation. The US president Richard Nixon intensified what he called the “war on drugs” in 1971 to help him win re-election in 1972 despite the deeply unpopular Vietnam war.

Global drug prohibition was expected to reduce the international drug market and make it less dangerous. But this is the opposite of what happened. Instead, production and consumption of drugs such as heroin and cocaine increased and their price fell by 80% over a quarter of a century. More than 100 new psychoactive drugs are identified within the EU every year, some of them much more dangerous than older drugs.

Drug prohibition was also supposed to protect the health and wellbeing of communities. But drug-related deaths, disease, violence and corruption have in many places increased rather than decreased. In Australia, where I spent three decades providing alcohol and drug treatment and advocating public health and human rights , while based in a Sydney teaching hospital, the rate of heroin overdose deaths – allowing for the growth in the population over time – increased 55-fold between 1964 and 1997.

Australia21 - crime scene illustration from The GuardianIn most western countries, property crime – taking money or property without threat – has skyrocketed from the 1960s to the present day. Drug prohibition is not the only factor, but it’s certainly a major one. The number of homicides has also increased in many countries, and this too is linked to the prohibition of drugs and the market this creates for organised crime.

But the effects on producer countries and trafficking countries such as Mexico are far worse than anything experienced in rich countries. When Felipe Calderón became president of Mexico in 2006 he declared a “war on drugs”. By the time he left office six years later, drug traffickers, the army or police had killed at least 80,000 Mexicans. In some countries drug prohibition has encouraged rampant corruption in policing, courts and up to the highest levels of government. Major drug producing or transit countries – such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Mexico – have risked becoming unstable failed states, even posing threats to the national security of some other countries.

It isn’t that the world has not implemented its war on drugs the right way. A war on drugs will always fail. When correctional authorities can’t keep drugs out of prisons, how can we expect drugs to be kept out of our cities and suburbs? When 1kg of heroin or cocaine multiplies in price several hundred-fold from its country of origin to its city of destination, how can we stop it from being transported? When drug traffickers are better resourced than police, how can we expect our authorities to stop drugs being trafficked?

In the past few years, former world leaders – and even some in office – have started calling for drug law reform. The essential elements are clear. First, redefine drugs as primarily a health and social issue. Second, improve treatment. Third, start reducing and, where possible, eliminating sanctions for drug use and drug possession. Fourth, regulate as much of the drug market as possible, starting with recreational cannabis. And fifth, shrink extreme poverty, which exacerbates drug problems.

Australia21 - marijuana shop from The GuardianBut there is a significant risk that Duterte’s campaign of extrajudicial killings and the lack of any serious international response may encourage other countries to instead follow his example. Duterte, who declared martial law in parts of the Philippines last week following gun battles between security forces and Islamic State militants, was recently quoted as saying: “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is [sic] 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” Hitler noted the lack of an international response to the Ottoman government’s genocide of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1917 and that emboldened him to proceed to his own Holocaust of six million Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals. It would be ironic as well as tragic if the extrajudicial killings of people who use drugs started to spread just when the international drug control system has started collapsing.

It should not take extrajudicial killings in the Philippines in 2017 to make the world realise that global drug prohibition has turned out to be an expensive way of making a bad problem much worse. When Mikhail Gorbachev realised in the 1980s that communism in the USSR had failed, he called for glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). We now need more openness about drug policy, along with a major restructuring of our response to drugs. The only winners so far have been drug traffickers and the many politicians who found that bad policy made good politics. The longer change is delayed, the more difficult the transition will be.

Apart from his role as an Australia21 Director, Dr Alex Wodak is president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. He was the director of the Alcohol and Drug Service, St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney (1982-2012) and with colleagues started Australia’s first needle syringe programme and first supervised injecting facility when both were pre-legal.


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