A Misguided 'War on Drugs'
View attachment 9342 Anything goes in the “war on drugs,” or so it seems. Governments around the world have used it as an excuse for unchecked human rights abuse and irrational policies based on knee-jerk reactions rather than scientific evidence. This has caused tremendous human suffering. It also undermines drug control efforts.
That human rights abuses are widespread is no secret. Nor is frivolous rejection by many governments of proven, effective strategies to protect the health of drug users and communities. Both have been well documented.
In 2003, law enforcement officials in Thailand killed more than 2,700 people in the government’s “war on drugs.” More than 30 U.N. member states, including China, Indonesia and Malaysia, retain the death penalty for drug offenses — some as a mandatory sentence — in violation of international law. In Russia, untold thousands of heroin users cannot obtain opioid substitution treatment because the government has banned methadone, despite its proven effectiveness.
In the United States — and many other countries — prisons are overflowing because drug users are routinely incarcerated for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. These prisoners often have no access to effective drug treatment or basic medical care. In Colombia, Afghanistan and other countries, crop eradication has pushed thousands of poppy and coca farmers and their families deeper into poverty without offering them any alternative livelihood and has damaged their health.
In China, hundreds of thousands of drug users are forced into drug detoxification centers, where they can be detained for up to three years without trial, treatment, or due process. In India people are dying in uncontrolled detoxification programs.
The “war on drugs” has distracted countries from their obligation to ensure that narcotic drugs are available for medical purposes. As a result, 80 percent of the world population — including 5.5 million cancer patients and 1 million terminally ill AIDS patients — has no access to treatment for severe pain. Strong pain medications are almost unavailable in most African countries. In India alone some 1 million cancer patients endure severe pain; most have no access to appropriate medications because of restrictions on prescribing them.
Such failure by the governments to ensure access to controlled medicines for pain relief or to treat drug dependence may violate international conventions proscribing cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Moreover scarce resources are being diverted from effective treatment to programs with no proven efficacy.
This is not only a human rights problem: It is bad public policy. Research shows that abusive drug control practices, including mass incarceration, are ineffective in controlling illicit drug consumption and drug-related crime, and in protecting public health. Scientific evidence has shown that more supportive “harm-reduction” programs prevent HIV among injection drug users, protect people’s health and lower future health costs. And for those with untreated pain, ignoring their needs removes them and their caregivers from productive life.
In March 2009, the United Nations met in Vienna to set new drug policies for the next 10 years. Sadly, the strategy adopted by member states contains scant human rights commitments. It congratulates the international community for what it says are successes of the past 10 years of drug policy, without mentioning its collateral damage. It proposes to continue those policies, with little change, for the next 10 years.
On Friday, the United Nations observes both the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking and the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. As the U.N. special rapporteurs on health and torture, we take this occasion to urge member states to end abusive policies and to create drug policies based on human rights that include harm reduction, access to evidence-based drug treatment and essential medicines, and protections against torture in law enforcement.
Too many lives are at stake for the current head-in-the-sand politics, and if the United Nations and member states continue to bury their heads, they will be complicit in the abuses.
Published: June 25, 2009
By MANFRED NOWAK ANAND GROVER
Anand Grover is a lawyer in India, and a U.N. special rapporteur on health. Manfred Nowak is professor of human rights at Vienna University and a U.N. special rapporteur on torture.