The World Health Organization and the United Nations have called for drugs to be decriminalized, the war on drugs put to end, and a shift to a “prevention and treatment” way of addressing the problem.

Mural Christiania.

Pro-cannabis and anti-heroin mural in Christiania, Denmark.

So we’ve known that the war on drugs flat out doesn’t work. And it’s pretty easy to sum up why.

First: People. Like. Drugs. If you take the drugs away they won’t stop using — they’ll just turn around and pay shady dudes in shadier alleys to get more. Drugs are also closely associated with crime in the public mind, but that’s because of and due to the war on drugs, not despite it — if there is no legitimate way to supply demand, black markets will pop up.

Lastly, the use of illegal drugs often leads to a lot of medical complications and deaths, but again, that’s mostly because of the war on drugs — shady dealers don’t have to worry about health standards so they can mix anything in, while users aren’t likely to go to the ER when something goes south since they fear legal repercussions.

It goes on like this. I’m not saying drugs aren’t a problem in and of themselves, but many of the issues they’re blamed for are caused by our reaction to the drugs. For a long time, and despite scientists pointing out to the fact that prohibition flat out doesn’t work, it seemed that politics was too well entrenched in the war on drugs for things to change.

But last month, on the International Day Against Drug Abuse, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for tackling the problem through “prevention and treatment” and by adhering to human rights. As part of a joint release describing how the two bodies say member states should go about ending healthcare discrimination, they’ve called for the “reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes,” including “drug use or possession of drugs for personal use”.

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Shifting perspectives

This position comes in stark contrast to previous attitudes on drugs: the WHO has previously called for their decriminalization in the context of HIV reduction. The UN has similarly called for health- and evidence-based solutions to drug abuse. But even last year, member states at the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs still maintained that prohibition and criminalization are the way to go with narcotics, although several countries did express strong concerns with this attitude.

So António Guterres’ call for change on the issue comes as both an unexpected as well as a surprising shift of perspective on the issue on the part of the UN.

“Despite the risks and challenges inherent in tackling this global problem,” the UN Secretary General said, “I hope and believe we are on the right path, and that together we can implement a coordinated, balanced and comprehensive approach that leads to sustainable solutions.”

“I know from personal experience how an approach based on prevention and treatment can yield positive results.”

And personal experience is something Mr Guterres has in spades. He was Prime Minister of Portugal at the time the country launched its highly controversial decriminalization programme, which allowed Portugal to swap (most) enforcement and incarceration for drug prevention and treatment projects. Since then, time has proven the worth of Portugal’s efforts: far from being a crime-and-junkie infested country, as opponents of the new policy projected, it saw drug-associated fatalities fall to one of the lowest in Europe and dramatically reduced incidence of drug-related health issues (most notably HIV among injectors).

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Portugal took the pressure from individuals and put it on organized crime groups trying to illegally sell their drugs in the country. So, while still capturing and burning a huge amount of illegal drugs, its government allows for possession and use in small quantities (in the sense that you might get a fine but no jail time and nothing goes on your criminal record) so users who need help know they can ask for it without fear of punishment.

Still, while Portugal showed that progress can be made internally by helping rather than punishing drug users, the illegal drugs trade remains an issue that can only be addressed on an international stage. It’s a huge business, and criminals aren’t ones known to readily let go of the empires they so painstakingly raised.

“The nexus between drugs, crime and terrorism and reveals a shifting pattern of relationships,” said Yury Fedotov, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

“As new threats appear, including spreading methamphetamine and new psychoactive substances, old ones continue to thrive. Business models are evolving too, with cybercrime and the darknet increasingly playing a role.”

Decriminalization won’t solve the drug problem by itself — but it will allow governments to take hold of, regulate, and tax one of the largest sources of income these groups have at their disposals today. At the same time, it will also free up research into currently-classified substances, many of which could have legitimate medical uses.

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