Is it time to end the war on drugs?

published on April 18, 2016 by Ben Taub in IFL Science

Drugshave beencast as the enemy in a global “war”over public health andmorality, while behind closed doors levels of narcotic use continue to rise – along with themanydangersassociated with their consumption. On the eve of a United NationsGeneralAssembly Special Session (UNGASS), whereUN member stateswill meet to discuss global drugs policy, experts within the scientific community are now calling for change, urging political leaders to end the so-called “war on drugs” in favor of more evidence-based approachestoresolving this thorny dilemma.

The official call to arms against illicit substances was first sounded at the 1961UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, before being renewed at the1998 UNGASS with the adoption of the motivationalslogan, “ADrugFreeWorld WeCanDoIt.”Decades later, the results arein: we couldn’t do it. Not only do millions of people worldwide continue to manufacture, traffic, and consume drugs, but, according to a recent report bya multi-disciplinaryscientificcommission,it is the war on drugs itself that is responsible for creating many of the public health costs surrounding these substances.

The alternative – decriminalization – is often greeted as a radical, risky idea, equivalent to opening all the cages and letting the animals out of the zoo, leading to a free-for-all as drugs flood the streets. However, as whispers become shouts and increasing numbers of public health experts back the call to end the penalization of drug use, it’s about time we took a serious look at what the real implications of this would be.

Harm Reduction

As everyone knows, drugs can be harmful to users’ health, causing an array of negative side-effects, including the big one – death – when overdoses occur. The fact that drug useremainsa criminal issue, however, means thatmany who experience these drawbacks are unable to seek medical help. Maria Phelan, deputy director of Harm Reduction International, told IFLScience that “the crux of the problem lies in the fact that, as a stigmatized population, [drug users] often aren’t receiving healthcare,” and as such are unnecessarily suffering and even dying.

On top of this, difficulties in accessing clean syringes mean needle sharing is alarmingly common among people who inject drugs, leading to the spread of diseases. It is currently estimated that around a third of all HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa are caused by the unsafe use of syringes.

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