When members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy launched their report Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work last week, they did so, as J. Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted Thursday, in the midst of a busy news week (“a crowded geopolitical field,” Morrison said). Still, the report’s recommendations — that national and international leaders end criminalization of drug use, decriminalize and regulate some drugs, stop arrests, prosecution and imprisonment of small-time producers and couriers, and use the money instead to improve public health responses to drug use — were widely disseminated in about 400 news articles and 50,000 tweets, Morrison said. That was in part because of the “very serious and impressive assembly of folks,” who lent their name to the report and its recommendations, Morrison said, which included former presidents of seven countries, along with leaders in global health, finance, business and academia.
Morrison was hosting two of them, Dr. Michel Kazatchkine and Sir Richard Branson, two days after the launch, at a CSIS event in Washington, DC titled Time to Rethink Global Drug Policy to discuss, in the wake of the report’s launch, the chances that its recommendations will become reality anytime soon. This is a critical question because the overarching recommendation of the report was that the next United Nations General Assembly on drug use in 2016 consider the report as something of a roadmap to dismantling current drug enforcement efforts, which are bound to international conventions.
Kazatchkine, former head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and presently the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia can be considered “the intellectual architect of the report,” Morrison said, while Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, which spans businesses from airlines to records, fitness centers and casinos, has brought funding and worldwide connections to the endeavor.
Both noted the failures of the nearly half-century “war on drugs” to end illicit drug distribution and use, and the damage its failures have inflicted, through mass arrests and ineffectively directed funding, on societies, individuals, law enforcement, economies, and public health, including efforts to stem the tide of HIV and hepatitis epidemics.
“It ruins people’s lives,” Kazatchkine said. “In addition to that, it just brings nothing to society.”
If the war on drugs were one of his businesses, Branson said briskly, “I would have called it a failure and shut it down long ago.”
But this being Washington, and policy makers here not necessarily being business tycoons, one of the first questions Morrison put to both men was how likely the United States, which can be credited with starting the war on drugs, and which continues to reflect its support for the effort with the highest incarceration rate on earth, might be expected to embrace some of the report’s most radical (decriminalization, regulation, funding for syringe exchange and heroin maintenance) and emphatic suggestions.
“There’s an openness to a critique of the war on drugs,” Morrison said, “but not to it being shut down.”
Both responded “as Europeans,” (as Kazatchkine put it) by pointing out that “there’s a big world out there,” (as Branson put it) and emphasized the encouraging signs they have seen worldwide, even in Eastern Europe, even in the United States. And those encouraging signs can also serve as models, Branson said.
“As a businessman, if I have a business that’s failing, I will immediately look around the world and see who’s doing it better,” Branson said.
That, both agreed, would be Portugal, which decriminalized drug use more than a decade ago, and which is one of the stars of the documentary Breaking the Taboo, a film that spread word of international drug enforcement failures, harms and alternatives.
Now Portugal, which Branson said, “had a massive heroin problem,” offers assistance rather than incarceration to people who takes illicit drugs. One result of that assistance, which includes supplying drug users with sterile syringes, Branson added, was “the spread of HIV/AIDS has gone away.”
But, many of the most effective measures to reduce harm stemming from illicit drug use run counter to the international conventions that are the backbone of the war on drugs, Kazatchkine said.
That’s where a point of difference between the two comrades in arms, one a businessman looking at drug policy reform pragmatically and one, a physician who has seen suffering from the policies up close, when Branson started to interrupt Kazatchkine.
Flexibilities in the conventions make it possible to dismantle the war on drugs without waiting for the whole world to hop on board, Branson insisted, when it was his turn again. Kazatchkine didn’t disagree. But he also wants to see the conventions that set up a failing effort, and that set back global public health efforts nullified.
That perhaps, is the difference between policy harm reduction, and elimination.