The Lancet Report: War on Drugs is Epic Public Health and Human Rights Failure

There is evidence that drug law enforcement has been applied in a discriminatory way against racial and ethnic minorities and women, and has undermined human rights.

There is evidence that drug law enforcement has been applied in a discriminatory way against racial and ethnic minorities and women, and has undermined human rights.

Sometimes it seems that cannabis advocates take one step forward only to face two steps backwards. The Lancet Report goes in the ‘step forward’ category.

Yesterday, the published results of a major study on drugs led by The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected medical journals, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health were released. The results show that the ‘War on Drugs’ approach has harmed public health and human rights and speak specifically to:

  1. Drug laws intended to protect have contributed to lethal violence, disease transmission, discrimination, forced displacement and undermined people’s right to health
  2. Non-violent minor drug offences should be decriminalized and health and social services for drug users strengthened

Timing of the report is significant.

The United Nations plans to hold a General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in New York April 19th to 21st, which will be the first such meeting on drugs since 1998. The theme of that first UNGASS was ‘A Drug-Free World —We Can Do It!’ and the U.N. endorsed drug-control policies with the goal of prohibiting all use: possession, production, and trafficking of illicit drugs, which were deemed a threat to the health and well being of all people.

Attitudes on drug policy have changed over the last 18 years since those goals were put in place. Cannabis has been legalized in some form in 23 U.S. states and the District of Columbia as well as in Uruguary.  Many countries have or are considering changing laws related to cannabis.

“Cannabis policy reform is about human rights, and always has been,” said Oaksterdam University’s Executive Chancellor Dale Sky Jones. “Though cannabis use is fairly equal among blacks and whites, people of color are at least 4 times more likely to be arrested for possession.”

“What’s brilliant about The Lancet report is the review of global evidence on the health impacts of drug policy that we suspected all along,” said Jones.

“Cannabis policy reform is about human rights, and always has been. Though cannabis use is fairly equal among blacks and whites, people of color are at least 4 times more likely to be arrested for possession.”

Oaksterdam University’s Executive Chancellor Dale Sky Jones

According to The Lancet research, the biggest contribution to higher rates of infection among drug users is the excessive use of incarceration and the systematic exclusion of people who use drugs from HIV and hepatitis C prevention, treatment and harm reduction, whether in the community or in prison. In addition, there is evidence that drug law enforcement has been applied in a discriminatory way against racial and ethnic minorities and women, and has undermined human rights.

“The idea of reducing harm is central to public policy in so many areas from tobacco and alcohol regulation to food or traffic safety,” says Commissioner Dr Joanne Csete, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, US, “but when it comes to drugs, standard public health and scientific approaches have been rejected. Worse still, by dismissing extensive evidence of the health and human rights harms of drug policies, countries are neglecting their legal responsibilities to their citizens. Decriminalization of non-violent minor drug offenses is a first and urgent step in a longer process of fundamentally re-thinking and re-orienting drug policies at a national and international level. As long as prohibition continues, parallel criminal markets, violence and repression will continue.”

“Cannabis advocacy occurs at multiple levels,” said Jones. “We see political leaders, movie stars, and regular people pushing cannabis reform forward. The Lancet group has taken a huge step forward for human rights. Now, the ball in the United Nations’ court.”

The basic recommendations contained in the report (see full report):

  1. Decriminalize minor, non-violent drug offenses—use, possession, and petty sale—and strengthen health and social-sector alternatives to criminal sanctions.
  2. Reduce the violence and other harms of drug policing.
  3. Ensure easy access to harm-reduction services for all who need them as a part of responding to drugs.
  4. Prioritize people who use drugs in treatment for HIV, HCV infection, and tuberculosis, and ensure that services are adequate to enable access for all who need care.
  5. Ensure access to controlled drugs.
  6. Reduce the negative impact of drug policy and law on women and their families.
  7. Efforts to address drug-crop production need to take health into account.
  8. A more diverse donor base is needed to fund the best new science on drug-policy experiences in a non-ideological way.
  9. U.N. governance of drug policy should be improved.
  10. Health, development and human rights indicators should be included in metrics to judge success of drug policy.
  11. Move gradually toward regulated drug markets and apply the scientific method to their assessment.
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