The pursuit of a drug free world – a noble goal or a dangerous utopia?
Not long before the delegates of member states gathered in New York at the UNGASS on drugs in 1998, outstanding professionals and politicans from all around the world addressed Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General in an open letter. They warned the UN not to chase rainbows but to stay down to earth, because in the name of pursuing a drug free society member states often violate human rights, assault the environment and fill prisons with non-violent offenders. “Realistic proposals to reduce drug-related crime, disease and death are abandoned in favor of rhetorical proposals to create drug-free societies. Persisting in our current policies will only result in more drug abuse, more empowerment of drug markets and criminals, and more disease and suffering,” they wrote. Unfortunately these dissent voices remained unheard in 1998, the UNGASS was a sequence of political speeches light years away from the reality of crime, addiction and disease on the streets. “A drug-free world – we can do it!” – this slogan dominated the session, member states committed themselves to achieve significant and measurable reduction of supply and demand of illicit drugs in 10 years.
Mr. Annan predicted that once in the future the world will see the 1998 UNGASS as a turning point in history, as a beginning of a new area without drug abuse. Mr. Annan’s statement reminds me that of Billy Sunday, an evangelist who predicted the beginning of a new paradise on earth in 1919, when the U.S. introduced federal alcohol prohibition. History itself has obviously refuted both predictions. Today more illicit drugs are produced and consumed worldwide than ever. In the past ten years heroin production doubled, cocaine production increased by 20 percent. Unfortunately, the slogan of the drug free world still haunts us ten years after: the chair of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) repeated it in her opening speech at the global NGO forum in Vienna, July 7, 2008. HCLU asked a couple of leading NGO activists to comment the goal of a drug-free world and produced a short video about this issue.
Some people think that even if the idea of a drug-free world is not realistic, we have to keep it as a useful tool to catalyze anti-drug efforts and give hope to people fighting against drugs. The problem with this argument is that we know from history that people tend to persecute and kill each other in the name of pink utopias based on the denial of reality. In this part of Europe where I live, totalitarian states tried to force us to be happy and live without free market in order to prevent the exploitation of people. The concept of communism sounded nicely: a world without poverty and property. But the costs of the pursuit of a capital-free world were disastrous: mass violation of human rights, overcrowded prisons, corruption and poverty. The cost of drug prohibition are disastrous as well: a huge black market, civil wars, corruption, the spread of HIV and HCV, overdoses, violence on the streets, overcrowded prisons. Is it worth to sacrifice so many lives, money and freedoms to maintain the illusion that one day we can live in a world free of drugs?
I believe that we have to abandon the dangerous utopia of a drug-free world. Not only because it is not realistic and costs us a fortune, but also because this slogan is just wrong as it is, therefore it can only bring rotten fruits. Drug use in itself is not necessarily bad, even if it does not serve medical or scientific purposes. The vast majority of people who use drugs for recreational purposes do it without causing any significant harms to themselves or anybody else, they don’t become addicts or criminals. I don’t think that the world would be a better place without drugs: even if many sufferings due to addiction and disease could be avoided, we don’t know how many people would have died or caused other people to die or suffer without finding relief in drugs. I don’t think that people who drink a glass of wine after a good dinner are responsible in any way for the death and disease caused by problematic alcohol use, or to eliminate non-problematic alcohol use would help in any way for those suffering from addiction and disease. We shouldn't eliminate dangerous sports like parachuting only to prevent accidents, even if the risk of hurting yourself with parachuting is much bigger than that of taking an Ecstasy pill. I don’t think that simply reducing the number of those who use marijuana or other drugs would reduce drug related overdoses, infections or crime. What I think is that drug policy should focus only on problematic forms of drug use and aim to create a social and political environment in which the risks and harms of drug use can be reduced to the minimum, without violating the human rights of those using drugs. The idea of a drug-free world became an obstacle to assess and tackle the real problems and needs of people, therefore it is a source of suffering in itself.
Posted by Peter Sarosi