War on drugs a failure
The Global Commission on Drug Policy releases its report today that the "war on drugs" has failed. This is big news, not only because the Commission features former UN Chief Kofi Annan and prominent businessmen such as Richard Branson, together with the former Presidents of Columbia and Mexico, but because it counters the logic used by many governments as to our burgeoning rates of incarceration.
War on Drugs 'Failure'
The global war on drugs has failed and governments should explore legalising marijuana and other controlled substances, according to a commission that includes former heads of state, a former United Nations Secretary-General and a business mogul.
A new report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy argues that the decades-old "global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world".
The 24-page paper will be released today.
"Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won," the report said.
The 19-member commission includes former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former US official George P. Schultz, who held Cabinet posts under presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
Others include former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, writers Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, Virgin boss Richard Branson and the Prime Minister of Greece.
Instead of punishing users who the report says "do no harm to others," the commission argues that governments should end criminalisation of drug use, experiment with legal models that would undermine organised crime syndicates and offer health and treatment services for drug-users in need.
The commission called for drug policies based on methods empirically proven to reduce crime, lead to better health and promote economic and social development.
The commission is especially critical of the US, which its members say must lead changing its anti-drug policies from being guided by anti-crime approaches to ones rooted in healthcare and human rights.At a global level, the War on Drugs has clearly failed. World drug use is going up, and the aggressive policies designed to curb its use through force are having devastating effects - just look at the number of drug deaths in Mexico for example, while Americans have become one of the top consumers of drugs sitting just across the border. Ever since former US President Richard Nixon declared the phrase in 1971, the policies have been related to an increase in violence and an incarceration rate that is unfairly weighted against ethnic minorities and the poor.
In New Zealand, we have one of the highest rates of incarceration in the western world, meaning that this report is something that our government should look at. The Department of Corrections website states that 7 out of 10 arrests in 2007 were of people who were under the influence of drugs, a statistic that highlights how much a punitive approach to justice in this instance inhibits people's ability for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Prison sentences often function as an introduction to criminal connections for those who did not have them before, and there must be some distinction within our legal system between those who have made minor offences that are best treated with a restorative approach.
This high rate of offending is fuelled in New Zealand by popular opinion, where a hard line approach to justice is seen as reducing crime despite a dearth of evidence to the contrary. This means higher costs for tax payers in rough times for the NZ economy. While Judith Collins is attempting to claim responsibility for a declining crime rate that is effectively the equivalent of the 2004 levels, National's proposed new prison and the funding of 600 more frontline police indicate that the current Government is not really convinced by its own rhetoric.
These comments are further supported by those who are in the industry of dealing with NZ's drug problems:
New Zealand has 'Homer Simpson approach' to drug use
Executive Director of the Drug Foundation, Ross Bell, told TV ONE's Breakfast the report lends further support to arguments that the current system is outdated.
"What this report says is we should use modern thinking and not base our drug policy on thinking that's more than 50 years old," he said.
"The Law Commission, which has just done a huge review of New Zealand's 36-year-old drug law, is essentially saying the same thing - we need to rebalance our priorities and put more focus into health.
"The drug problem is fundamentally a health issue and you can not solve a health issue in the criminal justice system," he said.
He said New Zealand spends more money on police, courts and locking people up than it does on alcohol and drug treatment and he considers that the wrong approach.
Methcon managing director, Dale Kirk, is a former detective and now an drug use educator.
He told Breakfast he agreed the current system needed to change, but warned about removing the criminal aspect of drug use.
"The Homer Simpson approach we've had over the past 50 years - which is to keep on doing the same thing despite a lack of success - is not the way to go," he said.
"We need to invest a lot more money into education and dealing with users as addicts rather than criminals.Statistically, the people most likely to use drugs in New Zealand are youth, those within the age group 18-25. They are also the group facing the 5th highest unemployment in the OECD within our society.
Justice Minister Simon Power is making moves in the right direction with the notion of a separate drugs court, but it does seem counterintuitive that it is only for people with serious drug problems rather than dealing with people across the board. The Drug Court was proposed by the Law Commission Review, which recommended a serious overhaul of NZ drug policy. Police Association President Greg O'Connor remains opposed, claiming that it will encourage young people to take up drugs by giving them a free ticket to ride on the first offence.
O'Connor needs to recognize that the current drug laws are having a dire effect on our society. The solution was never going to be extending our prisons using shipping containers, building more prisons, outsourcing the prisons, more frontline police, arming the police, extended warrants and so on. Such measures are the so-called 'ambulance at the bottom of the cliff'. Let's hope that the addition of prominent voices and solid evidence to the discussion offers NZ the ability to deal with the effects of drug use at a time when NZ really needs our youth on board.