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Drug Legalisation: An Evaluation of the Impacts on  Global Society 

December 21, 2011 · 


Drug LegalisationThe flawed proposition of drug legalisation

Various  well  funded  pressure  groups  have  mounted  campaigns  to  overturn  the  United  Nations Conventions  on  drugs.    These  groups  claim  that  society  should  accept  the  fact  of  drugs  as  a problem that will remain and, therefore, should be managed in a way that would enable millions of people to take advantage of  an alleged ‘legal right’ to use drugs of their choice.

It is important to note that international law makes a distinction between “hard law” and “soft law.”  Hard law is legally binding upon the States. Soft law is not binding. UN Conventions, such as the Conventions on Drugs, are considered hard law and must be upheld by the countries that have ratified the UN Drug Conventions.

International narcotics legislation is mainly made up of the three UN Conventions from 1961 (Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs), 1971 (Convention on Psychotropic Substances), and 1988 (Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances):

  • The 1961 Convention sets out that “the possession, use, trade in, distribution, import,export, manufacture and the production of drugs is exclusively limited to medical andscientific purposes”. Penal cooperation is to be established so as to ensure that drugs areonly used licitly (for prescribed medical purposes).
  •  The 1971 Convention resembles closely the 1961 Convention, whilst establishing aninternational control system for Psychotropic Substances.
  • The 1988 Convention reflects the response of the international community to increasingillicit cultivation, production, manufacture, and trafficking activities.

International narcotics legislation draws a line between licit (medical) and illicit (non-medical) use, and sets out measures for prevention of illicit use, including penal measures. The preamble to the 1961 Convention states that the parties to the Convention are “Recognizing that addiction to narcotic drugs constitutes a serious evil for the individual and is fraught with social and economic danger to mankind”.  The Conventions are reviewed every ten years and have consistently been upheld.

The UN system of drug control includes the Office of Drugs and Crime, the International Narcotics Control Board, and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.  The works of these bodies are positive and essential in international drug demand and supply reduction.  They are also attacked by those seeking to legalise drugs.

It is frequently and falsely asserted that the so-called “War on Drugs” is inappropriate and has become a very costly and demonstrable failure. It is declared by some that vast resources have been  poured  into  the  prevention  of  drug  use  and  the  suppression  of  illicit  manufacturing,  trafficking, and supply. It is further claimed that what is essentially a chronic medical problem has been turned into a criminal justice issue with inappropriate remedies that make “innocent” people criminals. In short, the flawed argument is that “prohibition” monies have been wasted and the immeasurable financial resources applied to this activity would be better spent for the general benefit of the community.

The groups supporting legalisation are:  people who use drugs, those who believe that the presentsystem of control does more harm than good, and those who are keen to make significant profits from marketing newly authorised addictive substances. In addition to pernicious distribution of drugs, dealers circulate specious and misleading information.  They foster the erroneous belief that drugs are harmless, thus adding to even more confused thinking.

Superficially crafted, yet pseudo-persuasive arguments are put forward that can be accepted by many  concerned,  well  intentioned  people  who  have  neither  the  time  nor  the  knowledge  to research  the  matter  thoroughly,  but  accept  them  in  good  faith.  Frequently  high  profile  people claim  that  legalisation  is  the  best  way  of  addressing  a  major  social  problem  without  cogent supporting  evidence.  This  too  influences  others,  especially  the  ill  informed  who  accept statements  as  being  accurate  and  well  informed.  Through  this  ill-informed  propaganda,  people are asked to believe that such action would defeat the traffickers, take the profit out of the drug trade and solve the drug problem completely.

The total case for legalisation seems to be based on the assertion that the government assault on alleged civil liberties has been disastrously and expensively ineffective and counter-productive. In short, it is alleged, in contradiction to evidence, that prohibition has produced more costs than benefits  and,  therefore,  the  use  of  drugs  on  a  personal  basis  should  be  permitted.  Advocates claim  that  legalisation  would  eliminate  the  massive  expenditure  incurred  by  prohibition  and would take the profit out of crime for suppliers and dealers.  They further claim that it would decriminalise  what  they  consider  “understandable”  human  behaviour  and  thus  prevent  the overburdening of the criminal justice system that is manifestly failing to cope. It is further argued irrationally that police time would not be wasted on minor drug offences, the courts would be freed from the backlog of trivial cases and the prisons would not be used as warehouses for those who choose to use drugs, and the saved resources could be used more effectively.

Types of drug legalisation

The term “legalisation” can have any one of the following meanings:

  1. Total Legalisation – All illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuanawould be legal and treated as commercial products. No government regulation would be requiredto oversee production, marketing, or distribution.
  2. Regulated Legalisation – The production and distribution of drugs would be regulated by thegovernment  with  limits  on  amounts  that  can  be  purchased  and  the  age  of  purchasers.  Therewould  be  no  criminal  or  civil  sanctions  for  possessing,  manufacturing,  or  distributing  drugsunless these actions violated the regulatory system. Drug sales could be taxed.
  3. Decriminalisation – Decriminalisation eliminates criminal sanctions for drug use and providescivil sanctions for possession of drugs.

To achieve the agenda of drug legalisation, advocates argue for:

  • legalising drugs by lowering or ending penalties for drug possession and use – particularly marijuana;
  •  legalising marijuana and other illicit drugs as a so-called medicine;
  • harm reduction programmes such as needle exchange programmess, drug injection sites, heroin distribution to addicts, and facilitation of so-called safe use of drugs that normalizedrug use, create the illusion that drugs can be used safely if one just knows how, andeliminates a goal of abstinence from drugs;
  • legalised growing of industrial hemp;
  • an inclusion of drug users as equal partners in establishing and enforcing drug policy; and
  • protection for drug users at the expense and to the detriment of non-users under the pretense of “human rights.”

The problem is with the drugs and not the drug policies

Legalisation  of  current  illicit  drugs,  including  marijuana,  is  not  a  viable  solution  to  the  global drug problem and would actually exacerbate the problem.

The  UN  Drug  Conventions  were  adopted  because  of  the  recognition  by  the  international community that drugs are an enormous social problem and that the trade adversely affects the global economy and the viability of some countries that have become transit routes. The huge sums  of  illegal  money  generated  by  the  drug  trade  encourage  money  laundering  and  have become  inextricably  linked  with  other  international  organised  criminal  activities  such  as terrorism,  human  trafficking,  prostitution  and  the  arms  trade.  Drug  Lords  have  subverted  the democratic governments of some countries to the great detriment of law abiding citizens.

Drug  abuse  has  had  a  major  adverse  effect  on  global  health  and  the  spread  of  communicable diseases  such  as  AIDS/HIV.  Control  is  vitally  important  for  the  protection  of  communities against these problems.

There is international agreement in the UN Conventions that drugs should be produced legally under strict supervision to ensure adequate supplies only for medical and research purposes. The  cumulative  effects  of  prohibition  and  interdiction  combined  with  education  and  treatment during  100  years  of  international  drug  control  have  had  a  significant  impact  in  stemming  the drug problem. Control is working and one can only imagine how much worse the problem would have become without it. For instance:

  • In 2007, drug control had reduced the global opium supply to one-third the level in 1907and even though current reports indicate recent increased cultivation in Afghanistan andproduction in Southeast Asia, overall production has not increased.
  •  During  the  last  decade,  world  output  of  cocaine  and  amphetamines  has  stabilized;cannabis output has declined since 2004; and opium production has declined since 2008.

We,  therefore,  strongly  urge  nations  to  uphold  and  enhance  current  efforts  to  prevent  the  use, cultivation, production, traffic, and sale of illegal drugs.  We further urge our leaders to reject the legalisation  of  currently  illicit  drugs  as  an  acceptable  solution  to  the  world’s  drug  problem because of the following reasons:

  • Only 6.1% of people globally between the ages of 15 and 64 use drugs (World DrugReport 2011 UNODC) and there is little public support for the legalisation of highlydangerous substances. Prohibition has ensured that the total number of users is lowbecause legal sanctions do influence people’s behaviour.
  • There  is  a  specific  obligation  to  protect  children  from  the  harms  of  drugs,  as  is evidenced through the ratification by the majority of United Nations Member Statesof  the  UN  Convention  on  the  Rights  of  the  Child  (CRC).  Article  33  states  thatMember   States   “shall   take   all   appropriate   measures,   including   legislative, administrative,  social  and  educational  measures,  to  protect  children  from  the  illicituse  of  narcotic  drugs  and  psychotropic  substances  as  defined  in  the  relevantinternational treaties, and to prevent the use of children in the illicit production andtrafficking of such substances”.
  • Legalisation  sends  the  dangerous  tacit  message  of  approval,  that  drug  use  is acceptable and cannot be very harmful.
  • Permissibility,  availability  and  accessibility  of  dangerous  drugs  will  result  in increased consumption by many who otherwise would not consider using them.
  • Enforcement of laws creates risks that discourage drug use. Laws clearly define what is legal and illegal and emphasise the boundaries.
  • Legalisation would increase the risks to individuals, families, communities and worldregions without any compensating benefits.
  • Legalisation would remove the social sanctions normally supported by a legal systemand expose people to additional risk, especially the young and vulnerable.
  • The legalisation of drugs would lead inevitably to a greater number of dependenciesand  addictions  likely  to  match  the  levels  of  licit  addictive  substances.    In  turn,  thiswould lead to increasing related morbidity and mortality, the spread of communicablediseases  such  as  AIDS/HIV  and  the  other  blood  borne  viruses  exacerbated  by  the sharing of needles and drugs paraphernalia, and an increased burden on the health andsocial services.
  • There would be no diminution in criminal justice costs as, contrary to the view held by  those  who  support  legalisation,  crime  would  not  be  eliminated  or  reduced. Dependency  often  brings  with  it  dysfunctional  families  together  with  increased domestic child abuse.
  • There will be increases in drugged driving and industrial accidents.
  • Drug  Control  is  a  safeguard  protecting  millions  from  the  effects  of  drug  abuse  andaddiction particularly, but not exclusively, in developing countries.
  •  Statements about taxation offsetting any additional costs are demonstrably flawed and this has been shown in the case of alcohol and tobacco taxes. Short of governments distributing free drugs, those who commit crime now to obtain them would continue to do so if they became legal.
  • Legalisation would not take the profit out of the drug trade as criminals will always find ways of countering legislation.  They would continue their dangerous activities including  cutting  drugs  with  harmful  substances  to  maximise  sales  and  profits. Aggressive marketing techniques, designed to promote increased sales and use, wouldbe applied rigorously to devastating effect.
  • Other ‘legal’ drugs – alcohol and tobacco, are regularly traded on the black market and  are  an  international  smuggling  problem;  an  estimated  600  billion  cigarettes  are smuggled  annually  (World  Drug  report  2009).  Taxation  monies  raised  from  these products go nowhere near addressing consequential costs.
  • Many  prisons  have  become  incubators  for  infection  and  the  spread  of  drug  related diseases  at  great  risk  to  individual  prisoners,  prison  staff  and  the  general  public. Failure to eliminate drug use in these institutions exacerbates the problem.
  • The prisons are not full of people who have been convicted for mere possession of drugs for personal use.  This sanction is usually reserved for dealers and those who commit crime in the furtherance of their possession.
  • The claim that alcohol and tobacco may cause more harm than some drugs is not a justification  for  legalising  other  dangerous  substances.  The  pharmacology  and pharmacokinetics  of  psychotropic  substances suggest  that  more,  not  less,  control  of their access is warranted.
  • Research regularly and increasingly demonstrates the harms associated with drug use and  misuse.  There  is  uncertainty,  yet  growing  evidence,  about  the  long-term detrimental effects of drug use on the physical, psychological and emotional health of substance users.
  • It  is  inaccurate  to  suggest  that  the  personal  use  of  drugs  has  no  consequential  and damaging effects.  Apart from the harm to the individual users, drugs affect others by addiction, violence, criminal behaviour and road accidents. Some drugs remain in the body  for  long  periods  and  adversely  affect  performance  and  behaviour  beyond  the time of so-called ‘private’ use.  Legalisation would not diminish the adverse effects associated with drug misuse such as criminal, irrational and violent behaviour and the mental and physical harm that occurs in many users.
  • All drugs can be dangerous including prescription and over the counter medicines ifthey are taken without attention to medical guidance. Recent research has confirmed just how harmful drug use can be and there is now overwhelming evidence (certainly in the case of cannabis) to make consideration of legalisation irresponsible.
  • The toxicity of drugs is not a matter for debate or a vote. People are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. Those who advocate freedom of choice cannot create freedom from adverse consequences.
  • Drug production causes huge ecological damage and crop erosion in drug producing areas.
  • Nearly  every  nation  has  signed  the  UN  Conventions  on  drug  control.    Any government of signatory countries contemplating legalisation would be in breach of agreements  under  the  UN  Conventions  which  recognise  that  unity  is  the  best approach to combating the global drug problem. The administrative burden associated with  legalisation  would  become  enormous  and  probably  unaffordable  to  most governments.   Legalisation  would  require  a  massive  government  commitment  toproduction,  supply,  security  and  a  bureaucracy  that  would  necessarily  increase  the need for the employment at great and unaffordable cost for all of the staff necessary to facilitate that development.
  • Any government policy must be motivated by the consideration that it must first do no harm. There is an obligation to protect citizens and the compassionate and sensible method must be to do everything possible to reduce drug dependency and misuse, not to encourage or facilitate it. Any failures in a common approach to a problem would result in a complete breakdown in effectiveness. Differing and fragmented responses to  a  common  predicament  are  unacceptable  for  the  wellbeing  of  the  international community.    It  is  incumbent  on  national  governments  to  cooperate  in  securing  the greatest good for the greatest number.

ISSUED  this 21 st  day of December, 2011 by the following groups:

  •  Drug Prevention Network of the Americas (DPNA)
  • Institute on Global Drug Policy
  • International Scientific and Medical Forum on Drug Abuse
  • International Task Force on Strategic Drug Policy
  • People Against Drug Dependence & Ignorance (PADDI), Nigeria
  • Europe Against Drugs (EURAD)
  • World Federation Against Drugs (WFAD)
  • Peoples Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance (PREDA)
  • Drug Free Scotland

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