From the US to Indonesia, why do we perpetuate the ‘war on drugs’?

As the United Nations General Assembly Session meets in New York today to discuss the ‘world drug problem’, our roundtable explores the political convenience and political gain that drives prohibitionist drug policy and the ‘war on drugs’. Video (7:34).

Gloria Lai Hannah Hetzer R Elliott
19 April 2016

It’s really based in racial prejudices.

Hannah Hetzer: The reason for keeping legal some drugs and not others has nothing to do with scientific evidence, it’s really based in racial prejudices, the association of certain drugs with certain populations, assumed to be using certain drugs. You’ve seen the hardest and most repressive drug policies mirror the populations that the US assumes are using those drugs. The anti-cocaine laws were directed at the African-American community, the opium laws at the Chinese community, anti-marijuana laws at the Mexican community.

This is the difficulty, you now have a country which was the creator and leader of the ‘war on drugs’, it started internally, and then imported and exported its failed policies to the rest of the world with bilateral agreements, and then embedding it in the UN framework. A lot of what we see today is also the result of what the US has been advocating for. And now we are at an interesting position where the US, I won’t say is a leader in drug policy reform, but is considering alternatives within its borders. That’s on two major fronts, the marijuana front with 23 states with legal medical marijuana, four states with regulated recreational marijuana, and a whole slew of states that are going to keep voting on it, progressing and progressing. On marijuana reform, the US is moving quicker than anywhere else. A second major area is criminal justice reform, where you have the Obama administration talking about mass incarceration, trying to roll that back, and being a real advocate for supporting those reforms internally.

Unfortunately we haven’t seen the reforms happening domestically translated into US foreign policy and its attitude at the UN. Until the US does that internationally, it will still be assumed that what it does internally might just be a phase, might be something that is just linked to the Obama administration, and not yet internationalised. When you’ve invested so much in rhetoric and a system that’s infiltrated your scientific institutions, your international institutions, it’s really hard to roll that back. It’s hard to admit that those policies aren’t working, it’s hard to get those institutions to change track.

Richard Elliott: Since the mid-80s, Canada began to introduce needle and syringe programmes, which have expanded across the country. Nowhere near the level of coverage needed, but there are needle and syringe programmes operating in cities across the country, and usually with funding from various levels of government. We have seen over the last 15 years, the introduction of a couple of supervised consumption services, particularly in Vancouver, where they’ve been some of the most well-studied examples of supervised consumption in the world, contributing to the literature to demonstrate the effectiveness of these health programmes.

So there are a number of things where Canada has been reasonably progressive compared to others. That now needs to translate into policy positions in international forums. We have been calling for the newly elected government to be a strong proponent of harm reduction, a strong proponent of public health-based approaches, a strong proponent of evidence-based approaches, of human rights, of opposition to the death penalty, again something Canada historically has been opposed to. We think Canada should be firmly speaking out against the death penalty for drug offences, which is clearly a violation of international law. That should not be a difficult position for Canada to take.

With the question of access to controlled substances for medical purposes, that should be a no-brainer for pretty much any country. Certainly for Canada, it shouldn’t be hard to get behind saying, we can’t let repressive prohibitionist approaches stand in the way of access to these substances for medical purposes. Particularly when the drug-control conventions themselves speak explicitly about this as a purpose of the drug-control regime: access for medical purposes. We know in reality that is often not the case.

It’s political convenience, it’s political gain.

Gloria Lai: The symptoms of this problem that we see in Asia are some of the most extreme forms of punishment for drug trafficking and drug supply. That’s the death penalty for drug offences. In countries like Singapore and Malaysia those sentences are mandatory, where the judge doesn’t have discretion over whether to impose the death penalty or an alternative sentence, when someone is arrested for possession of quite a minor quantity of drugs: 15 grams of heroin in Singapore for example. And this is a problem not just as a violation of international human rights law, it’s also a problem in that it’s not a deterrent. It doesn’t deter people from engaging in the drug trade or drug supply. It’s inevitable that it’s the people who are engaged in the lowest level of the drug market who end up arrested in possession of drugs. Not the high-level bosses of the drug trade. People who control the drug trade are not often found in possession of those drugs. It ignores the fact that people often engage in the drug trade due to poverty, to marginalisation.

The Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, decided to declare a state of emergency in relation to drugs. And one key measure he would take in response to this emergency was to execute everyone on death row for drug offences. So Indonesia proceeded to execute 14 people last year.  They’ve recently made statements that they wish to continue with more executions. Some analysts say that this is part of a political strategy. That he was seen as someone who was not a tough man, who did not have strong standing or the confidence of party members. And so he decided to take this stance to show that he could be tough.

It’s political convenience, it’s political gain, that governments choose to perpetuate and stay on this path.

This video 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. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

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