A major study on drugs led by a prestigious medical publication and a world leading medical school has called for minor drug offences to be decriminalised as a "first and urgent step".
The study by 'The Lancet' and Johns Hopkins University, a UK reformist said, should mean policy makers can no longer dismiss drug reform arguments as the "ravings of crazed drug users, libertarians or extremists".
The research calls for all non-violent minor drug offenses including use, possession, and petty sale, to be decriminalised, and said by not doing so countries are "neglecting their legal responsibilities to their citizens".
Researchers found that fifty years of drugs policy had caused serious "detrimental effects on the health, wellbeing and human rights" of both drug users and the general public.
While calls for decriminalisation are nothing new, the "huge significance of the report is its provenance", said Steve Rolles, of drugs reform think-tank Transform. He hopes the report will "shake the medical and public health establishment out of its stupor".
Rolles said: "Its [the report] in the world's leading medical journal in conjunction with the world's leading medical school," the senior policy analyst said, adding: "Its an astonishingly thorough piece of public health analysis compiled by leading scholars from around the world."
For those in the drug reform movement, Rolles said, the report is another "huge vote of confidence from the scientific academic community".
"When these arguments come from respected public figures, academics, parents and professionals its no longer possible to dismiss them as the ravings of crazed drug users, libertarians or extremists," he said.
"In fact its the advocates of the failed war on drugs who are now looking like anti-science ideologues. The case for reform has always been compelling, but who is making the argument is crucial. This stunning piece of work in such a lofty academic journal can only help accelerate much needed change."
Rolles said "professional bodies and royal colleges have been incredibly weak on this issue, historically", but now had a clear "road map" of how to improve drug policy.
He added: "We've come to expect this from cynical populist politicians, but medical professionals no longer have any excuse - we are long overdue some meaningful action from them."
The report published Thursday comes ahead of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on April 19 – the first UNGASS meeting on drugs since 1998.
In the 18 years since the last meeting attitudes to drugs policy have almost completely changed. Cannabis has been legalised in Uruguay and in four US states - Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska - and leading public and political figures have spoken out in favour of reforms.
Last month former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote a blog for the Huffington Post's US site arguing why it's time to legalise all drugs, and in October 2015 Sir Richard Branson leaked a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime calling on governments worldwide to decriminalise all drugs. Branson had feared the UNODC would soften its stance before publication.
The last UNGLASS meeting, convened under the theme, 'A drug-free world—we can do it!'—endorsed drug-control policies with the goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production, and trafficking of illicit drugs which it said were a "grave threat to the health and wellbeing of all mankind".
The new report said that "compelling evidence" now showed that decriminalisation worked, as proved in the Czech Republic and Portugal, who decriminalised all drugs in 2001. Both countries had experienced "significant health benefits, cost savings, and lower incarceration with no significant increase in problematic drug use", the study found.
Commissioner Dr Chris Beyrer said that drug laws were based on "ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded".
Beyrer, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, added: “The global ‘war on drugs’ has harmed public health, human rights and development. It’s time for us to rethink our approach to global drug policies, and put scientific evidence and public health at the heart of drug policy discussions.”
Commissioner Dr Joanne Csete said reducing harm was central to public policy in so many areas, from tobacco and alcohol regulation to food or traffic safety, "but when it comes to drugs, standard public health and scientific approaches have been rejected".
Csete, from the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, added: "Worse still, by dismissing extensive evidence of the health and human rights harms of drug policies, countries are neglecting their legal responsibilities to their citizens.
"Decriminalisation of non-violent minor drug offenses is a first and urgent step in a longer process of fundamentally re-thinking and re-orienting drug policies at a national and international level. As long as prohibition continues, parallel criminal markets, violence and repression will continue.”
The Commission also found that drug law enforcement had been applied in a "discriminatory way" against racial and ethnic minorities and women, and has "undermined human rights".
As an example, the Commission said new estimates suggest that prisoners in Mexico were now more likely than before to be subjected to torture and abuse, since the government’s 2006 decision to use military force against drug traffickers.
And in the US in 2014, the report found, African American men were more than five times more likely than white people to be incarcerated for drug offences in their lifetime, even though there is no significant difference in rates of drug use among the populations.
"The impact of this bias on communities of people of colour is intergenerational and socially and economically devastating," the study found.
The Commission also found substantial gender biases in current drug policies.
Of women in prison and pre-trial detention around the world, the proportion detained because of drug infractions is higher than that of men even though women tended to be on the lower rungs of the drug trade.
The study found: "Gender and racial biases have pronounced overlap, resulting in an intersectional threat to women of colour and their children, families, and communities."
The Commission also reviewed the "global evidence base" on health impacts of drug policy and found the biggest contribution to higher rates of infection among drugs users was the "excessive use of incarceration and the systematic exclusion of people who use drugs from HIV and hepatitis C prevention, treatment and harm reduction (including needle exchange and opioid substitution therapy) – whether in the community or in prison".
It added that harsher prison sentences are associated with higher rates of hepatitis C infection among injecting drug users.
The Commission found that the continued criminalisation of drug use fuels HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis transmission within prisons and the community at large.
"There is another way. Programmes and policies aimed at reducing harm should be central to future drug policies,” said Commissioner Professor Adeeba Kamarulzaman,University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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