Drug policy must return to focus on public health, SPP panelists say

School of Public Policy (Central European University)
Budapest, April 11, 2013

Global drug policy must move away from stigmatizing and criminalizing users and focus on the public health issues at stake, panelists concluded at the third drug policy debate hosted by CEU’s School of Public Policy and the Open Society Foundations’ Global Drug Policy Program on April 11. Panelists expressed hope that the current momentum in this direction will result in significant changes at the United Nations drug policy summit slated for 2016.

“There’s been a surprising snowball effect of frustration, and the momentum of reform is building up in a way that no one has expected,” said Martin Jelsma, Drugs and Democracy Program coordinator at the Transnational Institute in the Netherlands. Jelsma recently returned from Uruguay, which may soon legalize marijuana under state control.

Uruguay’s plans follow a groundbreaking move by Bolivia. After electing former coca farmer Evo Morales president, the country withdrew from the UN convention in 2011 in support of traditional chewing of the coca leaf, which is banned by the treaty because it is the main ingredient in cocaine. Bolivia re-acceded to the convention this January after winning an exemption from the prohibition on the chewing of coca leaves, prompting many to speculate that more flexibility is possible.


At the same time, Mexico under President Felipe Calderon pursued a war on drugs that left 70,000 dead, proving for many that criminalization is not the answer.

“The biggest weakness was that a system designed to protect public health turned into one that used a punitive criminal justice system to achieve this goal,” said Sandeep Chawla, deputy executive director at the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and director of its Division for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs. “We can work within this system to change that.”

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, a center for drug policy consulting and advocacy in the U.K., said that research by Release in 21 jurisdictions backs up the idea that decriminalization does not lead to an increase in drug use.

“If you adopt non-criminal sanctions, the sky does not fall in, use does not skyrocket, 10-year-olds do not start shooting up on the streets,” she said. “We saw no significant increase in use in districts that adopted a decriminalization approach.”

Furthermore, research in Australia comparing areas with contrasting approaches showed that drug users subject to non-criminal sanctions enjoyed better employment, education and accommodation prospects and were less likely to enter into the justice system for any crime, Eastwood said. Investment in public health must accompany drug policy reform, she added, citing the examples of Portugal and the Netherlands.

There is not yet consensus on the best policies, however, nor is there consensus on how best to achieve this internationally. Panelists at the SPP event were divided on whether it is possible to work within the UN convention to find solutions, or whether the convention should be revoked altogether. Recent developments – including the recent referenda in Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana, which mean that the U.S. will lose its ability to enforce strict drug control policies in Latin America – will lead to calls for flexibility within the treaty.

“What can come out of [the UN drug policy summit in 2016] is not yet a new agreement but a clear display signal that the foundations of the regime need to change,” Jelsma concluded.

The debate was opened by SPP Dean Wolfgang Reinicke, and moderated by Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Open Society Foundations’ Global Drug Policy Program.