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University expert on illicit drug use says World Drug Report misses point
Professor Alex Stevens, an expert in illicit drugs policy at the University, suggests the latest World Drug Report (26 June) marks another failed opportunity to address the real issues surrounding the control of illicit drugs.
He comments: 'The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) declares 26 June as World Anti-Drug Day. Every year, it publishes its World Drug Report. Solemn declarations are made on the progress that is being made in the doomed bid to eradicate illicit drugs from the face of planet. Hundreds of charts and tables are produced, documenting the rise and fall of drug production and consumption. This year the UNODC places its hopes in alternative development to shrink the drug market by offering farmers better livelihoods than they can achieve by growing opium or coca. No mention is made of the failure of previous alternative development programmes to show any evidence of effect on drug markets.
'Every year, the UNODC report is met with a chorus of criticism from opponents of its failed approach to drug control. This year, two of these critics got their retaliation in first. One is the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The other is Count the Costs. The Global Commission today released a report showing how the current regime of drug prohibition causes increases in HIV among injecting drug users. Count the Costs, a project sponsored by a range of drug and penal policy reform organisations, has launched its Alternative World Drug Report, pointing out the huge harms that are done in the name of prohibition. These include undermining legitimate economies in Colombia, Afghanistan and elsewhere by handing control of the largest cash crop in the world to criminals and insurgents, as well as contradicting the UN's own work on human rights.
'As I point out in my book ('Drugs, Crime and Public Health: The Political Economy of Drug Policy') there are two main barriers to the creation of more effective and humane drug policies. One is the political and ideological advantages that people who already have power gain from the repressive approach to drug users. This approach is used to justify penal control at home and military interventions in drug producing countries. It is also used to identify one particular group at the bottom of society (high harm causing drug users') as the people to blame for social ills that actually arise from an economic model that is no longer capable of providing full employment. The other blockage to reform is the deliberately created ignorance of the effects of changes in drug laws. The UN conventions on drugs forbid any experimentation with non-criminal measures for regulating drug supply. US and European politicians have so far failed to take the initiative to change these conventions, although pressure from Latin America to do so is building up. Where research has been done on decriminalisation of drugs (including my own research with Caitlin Hughes on Portugal) it suggests that the predicted increases in drug harms tend not to occur.
'So the ground seems to be shifting under the UNODC's feet. People across the world are losing patience with the failure to produce the often promised, but undelivered, reductions in drug use and harms. The harms of prohibitive, punitive drug control are becoming clearer. Pressure is rising to dismantle the existing regime and put a new, more effective and less damaging system in its place.'
Professor Alex Stevens is Professor in Criminal Justice at the University's School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research.
Story published at 10:46am 29 June 2012
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