7. Promote alternative sentences for small-scale and first-time drug dealers.
While the idea of decriminalization has mainly been discussed in terms of its application to people who use drugs or who are struggling with drug dependence, we propose that the same approach be considered for those at the bottom of the drug selling chain. The majority of people arrested for small-scale drug selling are not gangsters or organized criminals. They are young people who are exploited to do the risky work of street selling, dependent drug users trying to raise money for their own supply, or couriers coerced or intimidated into taking drugs across borders. These people are generally prosecuted under the same legal provisions as the violent and organized criminals who control the market, resulting in the indiscriminate application of severe penalties.
Around the world, the vast majority of arrests are of these nonviolent and low-ranking ‘little fish’ in the drug market. They are most visible and easy to catch, and do not have the means to pay their way out of trouble.48 The result is that governments are filling prisons with minor offenders serving long sentences, at great cost, and with no impact on the scale or profitability of the market.
In some countries, these offenders are even subject to the death penalty, in clear contravention of international human rights law. To show their commitment to fighting the drug war, many countries implement laws and punishments that are out of proportion to the seriousness of the crime, and that still do not have a significant deterrent effect. The challenge now is for governments to look at diversion options for the ‘little fish’, or to amend their laws to make a clearer and more proportionate distinction between the different types of actors in the drug market.
8. Invest more resources in evidence-based prevention, with a special focus on youth.
Clearly, the most valuable investment would be in activities that stop young people from using drugs in the first place, and that prevent experimental users from becoming problematic or dependent users. Prevention of initiation or escalation is clearly preferable to responding to the problems after they occur. Unfortunately, most early attempts at reducing overall rates of drug use through mass prevention campaigns were poorly planned and implemented. While the presentation of good (and credible) information on the risks of drug use is worthwhile, the experience of universal prevention (such as media campaigns, or school-based drug prevention programs) has been mixed. Simplistic ‘just say no’ messages do not seem to have a significant impact.49
There have been some carefully planned and targeted prevention programs, however, that focus on social skills and peer influences that have had a positive impact on the age of initiation or the harms associated with drug use. The energy, creativity and expertise of civil society and community groups are of particular importance in the design and delivery of these programs. Young people are less likely to trust prevention messages coming from state agencies.
Successful models of prevention have tended to target particular groups at risk – gang members, children in care, or in trouble at school or with the police – with mixed programs of education and social support that prevent a proportion of them from developing into regular or dependent drug users. Implemented to a sufficient scale, these programs have the potential to reduce the overall numbers of young people who become drug dependent or who get involved in petty dealing.
9. Offer a wide and easily accessible range of options for treatment and care for drug dependence, including substitution and heroin-assisted treatment, with special attention to those most at risk, including those in prisons and other custodial settings.
In all societies and cultures, a proportion of individuals will develop problematic or dependent patterns of drug use, regardless of the preferred substances in that society or their legal status. Drug dependence can be a tragic loss of potential for the individual involved, but is also extremely damaging for their family, their community, and, in aggregate, for the entire society.
Preventing and treating drug dependence is therefore a key responsibility of governments – and a valuable investment, since effective treatment can deliver significant savings in terms of reductions in crime and improvements in health and social functioning.
Many successful treatment models – using a mix of substitution treatment and psycho-social methods – have been implemented and proven in a range of socio-economic and cultural settings. However, in most countries, the availability of these treatments is limited to single models, is only sufficient to meet a small fraction of demand, or is poorly targeted and fails to focus resources on the most severely dependent individuals. National governments should therefore develop comprehensive, strategic plans to scale up a menu of evidence-based drug dependence treatment services.
At the same time, abusive practices carried out in the name of treatment – such as forced detention, forced labor, physical or psychological abuse – that contravene human rights standards by subjecting people to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, or by removing the right to self-determination, should be abolished. Governments should ensure that their drug dependence treatment facilities are evidence-based and comply with international human rights standards.
10.The United Nations system must provide leadership in the reform of global drug policy. This means promoting an effective approach based on evidence, supporting countries to develop drug policies that suit their context and meet their needs, and ensuring coherence among various UN agencies, policies and conventions.
While national governments have considerable discretion to move away from repressive policies, the UN drug control system continues to act largely as a straitjacket, limiting the proper review and modernization of policy. For most of the last century, it has been the US government that has led calls for the development and maintenance of repressive drug policies. We therefore welcome the change of tone emerging from the current administration50 – with President Obama himself acknowledging the futility of a ‘war on drugs’ and the validity of a debate on alternatives.51 It will be necessary, though, for the US to follow up this new rhetoric with real reform, by reducing its reliance on incarceration and punishment of drug users, and by using its considerable diplomatic influence to foster reform in other countries.
UN drug control institutions have largely acted as defenders of traditional policies and strategies. In the face of growing evidence of the failure of these strategies, reforms are necessary. There has been some encouraging recognition by UNODC that there is a need to balance and modernize the system, but there is also strong institutional resistance to these ideas.
Countries look to the UN for support and guidance. The UN can, and must, provide the necessary leadership to help national governments find a way out of the current policy impasse. We call on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov to take concrete steps toward a truly coordinated and coherent global drug strategy that balances the need to stifle drug supply and fight organized crime with the need to provide health services, social care, and economic development to affected individuals and communities.
There are a number of ways to make progress on this objective. For a start, the UN could initiate a wide- ranging commission to develop a new approach; UN agencies could create new and stronger structures for policy coordination; and the UNODC could foster more meaningful program coordination with other UN agencies such as the WHO, UNAIDS, UNDP, or the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
11. Act urgently: the war on drugs has failed, and policies need to change now.
There are signs of inertia in the drug policy debate in some parts of the world, as policymakers understand that current policies and strategies are failing but do not know what to do instead. There is a temptation to avoid the issue. This is an abdication of policy responsibility – for every year we continue with the current approach, billions of dollars are wasted on ineffective programs, millions of citizens are sent to prison unnecessarily, millions more suffer from the drug dependence of loved ones who cannot access health and social care services, and hundreds of thousands of people die from preventable overdoses and diseases contracted through unsafe drug use.
There are other approaches that have been proven to tackle these problems that countries can pursue now. Getting drug policy right is not a matter for theoretical or intellectual debate – it is one of the key policy challenges of our time.