The so-called “war on drugs” is inefficient, expensive, and extremely dangerous. A new study says it’s time to finally move on and try something that has a chance of working.

Image credits: epSos.de

Since ancient times, humans have consumed psychoactive substances, risking harm both to themselves and to those around them. In modern days, however, the situation is completely different. A quarter of a billion adults (5 percent worldwide) have consumed, at least once, an illegal drug such as cannabis, heroin, or cocaine. Because drugs are completely illegal and prohibited, people often don’t even know what they’re taking. In the UK 25% of 15-year-olds are estimated to have taken drugs of unknown quality and potency, and this is arguably an even bigger problem than the drugs themselves.

This happens despite three UN treaties which strive to “advance the health and welfare of mankind” by prohibiting the use of drugs. Globally, the war on drugs has an annual cost of at least $100bn, but the results have been mediocre at best and disastruous at worst. There are numerous deep and hard-hitting problems with this approach. For starters, it forces people to buy drugs from shady sources and pushes them away from health services. Sharing of needles for drug injection has led to a surge in bloodborne infection, including HIV and hepatitis C.

Furthermore, this places a strong stigma on drug users, disproportionately so on poor people, ethnic people, and women. Just like in any other war, examples of human rights violations abound.

In Mexico, 65,000-80,000 people were killed in drug-related street violence, and in many places in the US, even minor drug offenses are sanctioned drastically leading the country to “boast” the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The Philippines has seen 5,000 extrajudicial killings since July, after President Rodrigo Duterte’s call for vigilantism against drug dealers. No matter how and where you look, the war on drugs is failing and it’s time for a paradigm shift.

“At a UN general assembly in April, many countries asked for health and human rights to be prioritised over punitive responses, the study reads. “Many countries have removed criminal penalties for personal drug possession. Portugal replaced criminal sanctions for drug use with civil penalties and health interventions 15 years ago.”

So we’re spending too much money, people are still using a lot of drugs, and we’re jailing people who should often be considered victims. Let’s get it clear: no one is saying let’s give drugs to the people, but the war on drugs is failing. What scientists are urging policy makers is to start treating drugs like a health problem, not a punitive legal one.

Portugal is a clear example of success. Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs in 2001. Weed, cocaine, heroin – whatever. If it’s in small quantities, then it’s not a legal case. You would still get punished of course, and the odds are you’d receive quite a fine. You might even be sentenced to attend therapy, but there’s no criminal record and there’s no jail time. The results? Among Portuguese adults, there are 3 drug-overdose deaths for every 1,000,000 citizens. The EU average is 17.3.

The study says that for models of regulations, we should start looking at other intoxicating substances. The study concludes:

“Prescription drugs, alcohol, and tobacco provide lessons to inform models of regulation. Different drugs with different harms in different contexts may need different approaches. And any change must be supported by investment in evidence based education, counselling, and treatment services to deter drug use and increase safety among users.”

“Health should be at the centre of this debate and so, therefore, should healthcare professionals. Doctors are trusted and influential and can bring a rational and humane dimension to ideology and populist rhetoric about being tough on crime.”

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