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Bloodshed, shame and lies – this is why you should give a damn about prohibitionist drug policy

This is the reality of the ‘war on drugs’: children dying alone because of shame and stigma, escalating incarceration of women, and violent enforcement centred on the global south.

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lead Colombia drug eradication. Fernando Vergara/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Colombia drug eradication. Fernando Vergara/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.More than 150,000 people have been murdered in Mexico since the government launched a ‘war on drugs’ in 2006, and 28,000 others remain disappeared or missing. In the United States, children are dying alone from drug-use because they are too ashamed to seek help. In Thailand, women at the bottom of the drug chain are being incarcerated at alarming levels. If you talk to academics, activists and people caught on the frontline of the ‘war on drugs’, one thing quickly becomes clear: after five decades of criminalisation and militarisation, it has failed, and its tragedies are countless. Here are just seven reasons why the cost of this failure affects us all.

1. If you live in the global north, then you are already implicated in the hypocrisy of the drug control system

The enforcement of global drug policy is overwhelmingly focused on the global south, and drugs such as cocaine and heroin. This is despite synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine dominating the market. In fact, it is the global north which is the primary space for manufacture and export of illicit substances. “Why are Colombia, Bolivia and Afghanistan acceptable theatres for violent, weaponised counter-narcotics operations, and not Poland or Canada,” asks professor Julia Buxton. Español

2. By some estimates, more people have died in the Mexican and Colombian ‘war on drugs’ than in Syria

Protest for the 'Ayotzinapa 43'. Eduardo Verdugo/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Protest for the 'Ayotzinapa 43'. Eduardo Verdugo/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.As journalist Johann Hari, who immersed himself in the politics of the drug wars for his book Chasing the Screamtells us: “it’s worth remembering that more people have died in drug war violence in Mexico and Colombia, than have died in the war in Syria”. And of course we should talk about Syria – but do we give narcotics bloodshed as much attention? “That violence, we could end”, Hari says.

3. Latin America’s rightward drift may slow the tide of reform

So much of the movement against the drug control system has come from Latin American countries, which have borne the brunt of the violence. And if there is to be change, it must also be driven on a hemispheric level. But the end of the ‘pink tide’ (the wave of leftist governments across the region), a resurgent right in Latin America, along with reluctance on the part of the world's historically powerful countries to face up to a problem they do not see as their own, poses a challenge for any progressive future for drug control.

4. Meanwhile, women are suffering from our most punitive drug policies

Across Latin America, the escalating incarceration levels for women are being driven by a punitive drug control system. Most of these women have been convicted for low-level, nonviolent offences. This is a global problem. In Thailand, 80% of the female prison population have been jailed for drug-related crime. “It is important to stress that these women do not pose a threat to society”, write Coletta Youngers and Nischa Pieris, “they are arrested for low-level tasks, but are locked up in pre-trial detention or with excessive prison terms.” 

5. And "our children are dying"

Back in April, we spoke to the Caravan activists – a remarkable group of people who have lost loved ones because of the violence and failures of prohibitionist drug controls. Tamara Olt’s son died, using alone, because of the stigma and shame associated with drug-use. “My story is way too common,” she told us. “Our children are dying. The billions of dollars and a failed war on drugs – there has to be another answer.”

6. This hasn’t just been a failure, it’s been an expensive one too

Needle exchange programme, Portland, Maine 2012. Press Association/Robert F. Bukaty. All rights reserved. Needle exchange programme, Portland, Maine 2012. Press Association/Robert F. Bukaty. All rights reserved.It’s not only the $100 billion spent by governments to prop up the drug control regime, but also the value of the illegal drug market which has been created out of the system, estimated at $330 billion. What if we invested in good quality treatment for addiction instead?  

7. Our drug laws are premised on fear and notions of security, when they should be based on evidence and safety

“Proper drugs education, which is based on science, and which is not based on perpetuating fear, is the only way forward”, says Julia Buxton. It’s time to introduce safety, from a public health perspective, into drug policy. “Drug policy is fundamentally not about security, because this notion of security won’t protect my child, and won’t protect other people’s children.”

The violence and inequity caused by bad drug policies aren’t easy to unravel, but they are part of a story that is important to understand. Because, as with so many other tragedies across the world, the roots of it are always closer to home than you may realise. Español

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights.
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