Extrajudicial killings in the Philippines show how prohibition has made a global problem far worse.
So far, with the exception of praise from the US president, Donald Trump, there has been strong international condemnation of the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, including from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The United Nations human rights council voted 45-1to urge the Philippines to desist.
The unpalatable fact for policymakers everywhere is that extrajudicial killings of people who use drugs would never occur without the sanction of a global drug prohibition, a system that started with an international meeting convened by the US in Shanghai in 1909. A series of such meetings culminated in three international drug treaties (in 1961, 1971 and 1988) approved by almost every nation. The US president Richard Nixon intensified what he called the “war on drugs” in 1971 to help him win re-election in 1972 despite the deeply unpopular Vietnam war.
Global drug prohibition was expected to reduce the international drug market and make it less dangerous. But this is the opposite of what happened. Instead, production and consumption of drugs such as heroin and cocaine increased and their price fell by 80% over a quarter of a century. More than 100 new psychoactive drugs are identified within the EU every year, some of them much more dangerous than older drugs.
Drug prohibition was also supposed to protect the health and wellbeing of communities. But drug-related deaths, disease, violence and corruption have in many places increased rather than decreased. In Australia, where I spent three decades providing alcohol and drug treatment and advocating public health and human rights , while based in a Sydney teaching hospital, the rate of heroin overdose deaths – allowing for the growth in the population over time – increased 55-fold between 1964 and 1997.
It isn’t that the world has not implemented its war on drugs the right way. A war on drugs will always fail. When correctional authorities can’t keep drugs out of prisons, how can we expect drugs to be kept out of our cities and suburbs? When 1kg of heroin or cocaine multiplies in price several hundred-fold from its country of origin to its city of destination, how can we stop it from being transported? When drug traffickers are better resourced than police, how can we expect our authorities to stop drugs being trafficked.
In the past few years, former world leaders – and even some in office – have started calling for drug law reform. The essential elements are clear. First, redefine drugs as primarily a health and social issue. Second, improve treatment. Third, start reducing and, where possible, eliminating sanctions for drug use and drug possession. Fourth, regulate as much of the drug market as possible, starting with recreational cannabis. And fifth, shrink extreme poverty, which exacerbates drug problems.
Clearly, global drug prohibition is starting to unravel.
Hitler noted the lack of an international response to the Ottoman government’s genocide of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1917 and that emboldened him to proceed to his own Holocaust of six million Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals.
It would be ironic as well as tragic if the extrajudicial killings of people who use drugs started to spread just when the international drug control system has started collapsing.
It should not take extrajudicial killings in the Philippines in 2017 to make the world realise that global drug prohibition has turned out to be an expensive way of making a bad problem much worse. When Mikhail Gorbachev realised in the 1980s that communism in the USSR had failed, he called for glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).
We now need more openness about drug policy, along with a major restructuring of our response to drugs. The only winners so far have been drug traffickers and the many politicians who found that bad policy made good politics. The longer change is delayed, the more difficult the transition will be.