Drug War

Lancet Commission Recommends Drug Legalization

As the U.N. prepares for a special session on "the world drug problem," 22 experts catalog the costs of prohibition.



The last time the U.N. General Assembly held a "special session" (UNGASS) on drug policy, it was organized under the slogan "A Drug-Free World…We Can Do It." Pino Arlacchi, then executive director of the U.N. Drug Control Program, insisted "there is no reason" the world's supply of cocaine and heroin "cannot be eliminated in little more than a decade." That was 1998. With a new UNGASS on "the world drug problem" scheduled for next month, a group of 22 experts organized by The Lancet and Johns Hopkins University is hoping to inject a little more realism into the proceedings, including an awareness of prohibition's human costs and the benefits of "mov[ing] gradually towards regulated drug markets."

The report of the Johns Hopkins–Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health, published in the medical journal last Thursday, faults U.N. officials for conflating drug use with drug abuse, a black-and-white, all-or-nothing attitude that leads not only to vacuous slogans but to highly punitive, violently repressive policies that do far more harm than good. "The authors of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2015 annual report concluded that, of an estimated 246 million people who used an illicit drug in the past year, 27 million (around 11%) experienced problem drug use, which was defined as drug dependence or drug-use disorders," the commission says. "The idea that all drug use is dangerous and evil has made it difficult to see potentially dangerous drugs in the same light as potentially dangerous foods, tobacco, alcohol, and other substances for which the goal of social policy is to reduce harms. Harm reduction, an essential element of public health policy, has too often been lost in drug policy making amid a dominant discourse on the overwhelming evil of drugs."

Harm reduction aims to minimize the damage done by drug control policies as well as the damage done by drugs themselves. Prohibition magnifies the hazards of heroin use, for example, by creating a black market in which potency is unpredictable and encouraging both injection (because that's the most efficient route of administration and prohibition makes heroin artificially expensive) and needle sharing (through laws that limit access to syringes and punish possession of them). As a result, heroin users are more likely to die from overdoses or blood-borne diseases than they would be if heroin were legal.

Violence is another familiar product of prohibition, which relies on violence to suppress trafficking and creates black markets in which there is no legal way to resolve disputes. "In Mexico," the report notes, "the striking increase in homicides since the government decided to use military forces against drug traffickers in 2006 has been so great that it reduced life expectancy in the country….The increase in homicides after 2006 is highly significant and notable, especially after a long downward trend in homicides. No other country in Latin America—and few elsewhere in the world—have had such a rapid increase in mortality in so short a time." According to one estimate, "drug-war-related deaths pushed the national homicide rate up by 11 per 100,000," which is "2.5 times the total homicide rate in the USA in 2014."

The Lancet

Some of the damage done by drug prohibition can be ameliorated by harm reduction measures that fall short of legalization, such as needle exchange programs, safe injection spaces, greater availability of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and prescription of heroin or other replacement opioids to addicts. The commission recommends those steps, along with decriminalization of possession for personal use, a policy it says has proven successful in Portugal and the Czech Republic. But some problems are inherent in any attempt to forcibly suppress drug use. Although prohibition-related violence can be reduced by dialing back the war on drugs, for instance, it cannot be eliminated as long as production and distribution of certain intoxicants are criminal activities.

"Policies meant to prohibit or greatly suppress drugs present a paradox," the report says. "They are portrayed and defended vigorously by many policy makers as necessary to preserve public health and safety, and yet the evidence suggests that they have contributed directly and indirectly to lethal violence, communicable-disease transmission, discrimination, forced displacement, unnecessary physical pain, and the undermining of people's right to health….We believe that the weight of evidence for the health and other harms of criminal markets and other consequences of prohibition catalogued in this commission is likely to lead more countries (and more US states) to move gradually towards regulated drug markets—a direction we endorse."

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  1. That’s just crazy talk.

    1. autophagia-induced starfish glow.

      1. Agile? Wherever have you been?

  2. Pino Arlacchi, then executive director of the U.N. Drug Control Program, insisted “there is no reason” the world’s supply of cocaine and heroin “cannot be eliminated in little more than a decade.” That was 1998.

    Don’t blame him for your lack of imagination. Or her. How can anyone tell with these foreigner gibberish names.

    1. Well, it could I mean we still have, like, 5000 nukes. If we destroy the world, we’ll destroy the world’s supply of cocaine and heroin.

      1. It’s the only way to be sure that no one ever sins.

      2. Exactly. I mean, why not a good old American name like Taylor or Dakota. No guesswork required.

        1. What ever happened to good old Margaret or William. Damn kids.

  3. Doesn’t UNGASS cause Climate Change?

  4. The noble drug warriors never intended for any of these bad things to happen. Therefore something else must be the cause. After all, intentions are the only thing that matters.

  5. You learn something new every day – I did not know that UN ambassadors are referreded to as “Your Excellency”. Fuck those stuffed shirt expense-account-eating chauffeured-limo riding pinheads. Only surprised the “special session” wasn’t held at a resort in Hawaii or some shit.

  6. Once again, a supposedly professional journal goes political. That I agree with it is irrelevant- this shit completely cheapens the scientific process and sends Lancet even further down the toilet.

    1. The Lancet has been at least partially political for quite a while now. Not as bad as some others, but…the political rot gets into everything. Remember, TEAM makes people retarded.

      1. It’s been among the most politicized, but at this point, they’re not even pretending. JAMA and NEJM are following rapidly. When i read an article in J. Chem. Phys. about non-colonialist approaches to molecular orbital theory, I’ll just have Mrs. Candy give me the bullet while I sleep.

  7. It is quite interesting that we spend all this effort (unsuccessfully) to stabilize the other side of the globe. And yet we fail to take the most simple steps that would go far to stabilize our hemisphere. Namely destroying the cartels by legalizing drugs and dealing with them the same way we deal with alcohol. All this bitching about immigrants from south of the border. A large number of them wouldn’t be trying to get here so desperately if not for the cartel violence primarily financed by our prohibition.

    1. Power is an end, not a means. Legalizing drugs would result in the government losing a huge amount of power, and for that reason I seriously doubt it will ever happen.

      1. There would be plenty of power and money to be had controlling the drug market.

        1. The drug war has been used as an excuse to totally gut the 4A and 5A, and seriously erode several others. That’s the kind of power that I’m talking about. The power to treat everyone like a criminal until they prove otherwise. The power to oppress is addictive, and those who wield it do not give it up willingly.

  8. Whatever could have happened in 2008-09 which spiked the homicide rate?

    The US is lucky that Mexico has a near zero ability to project force beyond its northern border. The US government illegally exporting firearms to Mexican cartels would probably result in some serious consequences if the US and Mexico actually had some military or economic parity. As-is we can apparently do whatever we want to screw up another nation with the only consequences being a bunch of dead Mexicans and the US government attempting to punish law-abiding gun owners in the US.

    1. The US isn’t ‘lucky’, it’s arming to cartels precisely to neutralize Mexican Miltary capacity.

      1. There arming cartels with US weapons trying to make it seem like they are coming here to buy them legally in an attempt to prop up support for more gun laws. False flag operation being committed against the US population by Dear Leader.

        1. It serves multiple purposes.

        2. Embrace the healing power of “and”.

    2. Re: SFC B,

      Whatever could have happened in 2008-09 which spiked the homicide rate?

      The US sent Mexico money to ‘combat’ the cartels, and the Mexican president (Felipe Calder?n) did exactly that, under the threat of commercial or trade restrictions.

  9. Some thoughts I got from this article or are related to this article:

    Drug use != drug abuse.

    Making drugs illegal merely drives drug use underground where black markets are more difficult to influence.

    Humans have always self-medicated, and always will.

    Who really knows how much or which drugs work for me?

    Consultation with a doctor or pharmacist is better than making decisions on one’s own, but it is prevented by drug laws.

  10. “Policies meant to prohibit or greatly suppress drugs present a paradox,” the report says. “They are portrayed and defended vigorously by many policy makers as necessary to preserve public health and safety, and yet the evidence suggests that they have contributed directly and indirectly to lethal violence

    This could have been written in 1933. SMH Why do people have a hard time learning from past mistakes?

  11. Dude, the 70s were cool like that.


  12. This could go many ways:

    1. The UN recommends that drugs be decriminalized or legalized, and member nations follow suit.
    2. The UN recommends that drugs be decriminalized or legalized, but the US’s drug-warboner administration bullies its allies into ignoring it.
    3. The UN recommends that drugs be decriminalized or legalized, but the US ignores it, and becomes the laughingstock of the other member nations who go ahead and decrim/legalize.
    4. The UN disregards all those studies and keeps the status quo, US intimidation may or may not be a factor in this decision. Some nations will say “fuck the UN” and go ahead with decriminalization/legalization.

  13. Only a freedom revolution will end the selective drug war! Revolution now!

  14. When fascism came to the USA it was not labelled “Made in Germany”, it was not marked with a swastika, it was not even called fascism.It actually had many names, like Prohibition, War on (some) Drugs, DEA, CIA, Nixon, Kleiman, Sabet, Sembler, Fay, Chabott, Volkov, Leonhart, ….

    Prohibition has finally run its course; the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, users and non-users worldwide, have been destroyed or severely disrupted; many countries that were once shining beacons of liberty and prosperity have, through scientific ignorance and blind political fanaticism, become repressive smoldering heaps of toxic hypocrisy and a gross affront to fundamental human decency. It is now the duty of every last one of us to insure that the people who are responsible for this shameful situation are not simply left in peace to enjoy the wealth and status that their despicable actions have, until now, afforded them. Former and present Prohibitionists should not be allowed to remain untainted or untouched by the unconscionable acts that they have viciously committed on their fellow human beings. They have provided us with neither safe communities nor safe streets. We should provide them with neither a safe haven to enjoy their ill-gotten gains nor the liberty to repeat such a similar atrocity.

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