Explained: The ‘war on drugs’ and how the world is re-adjusting its response

The Canadian government has decided to allow the province of British Columbia (BC) to decriminalise the possession of a small amount of illicit drugs for 3 years on an experimental basis. The pilot project begins from Jan 31, 2023. With overdose deaths in the rising province, it is hoped that by eliminating criminal penalties, there will be a reduction of fear and shame for users that need medical help.

Canada’s move is the latest among the series of policy tweaks that are either contemplated or executed by different countries to re-adjust their response in the ongoing global ‘war on drugs’.

What is the ‘war on drugs’?

In 1971, then US President Richard Nixon held a press conference and declared drug abuse, public enemy number one. He said that “a new, all out offensive” was required, that would be “worldwide” in nature. Ten years earlier, the UN had passed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which sought to prohibit the production and supply of various substances through international cooperation.

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This marked the beginning of a global campaign to eradicate the use of illicit drugs and its production, called the ‘War on Drugs’.

At the heart of this campaign lay the notion that prohibition of drugs would reduce consumption. By criminalising drugs and initiating harsh punitive action against people involved in the use, production and dissemination, the world would effectively be rid of drugs.

Who is winning this war?

Over the past decades, there has been a growing sentiment that the war on drugs has failed at curtailing the supply or consumption of drugs.

In a 2011 report, the Global Commission on Drug Policy stated, “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”

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The report claimed that in the period that such a campaign has been in play, the global market of illegal drugs has not been curtailed, but in reality has grown. In data collected by the United Nations, global consumption of opiates, cocaine and marjiuana increased by 34.5%, 27% and 8% respectively, between 1998-2008.

The sentiment was repeated in a 2018 report by the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC). The report stated that between 2008 and 2018, drug related deaths had increased globally by 145%.

There has also been a steady increase in mass incarceration and disproportionate punishments. According to the same 2018 IDPC report, 1 in 5 prisoners worldwide are arrested for drug offences, of whom 83% are in prison for drug use or possession for personal use.

How is the world re-adjusting its response?

Over the past few years, several countries have been turning away from prohibitionist drug strategies and are introducing alternative policies instead.

There has been a shift in attitude around the world towards marijuana, with many believing it to be less harmful than imagined before.

Uruguay and Canada for example, legalized the recreational use of marijuana in 2013 and 2018, respectively.

Others have tried to decriminalise drug use by removing criminal sanctions against different illicit substances by prescribing specific amounts.

In 2001, Portugal changed the status of illegality for possession of drugs for personal use from criminal to administrative. Rather than facing arrest, users, it was decided, would be given a warning, a small fine or will be taken to a doctor or social worker for treatment and harm reduction, as reported by The Guardian.

In 2016, Canada’s British Columbia declared a public health emergency due to skyrocketing drug overdose deaths. As per the BBC, over 9,000 people have died of overdoses in BC since 2016. Now, the province wants to experiment with legalizing personal use of all drugs for 3 years.

While the illicit substances will not be legalised, adults possessing a total amount of 2.5 gm of cocaine, methamphetamine, opioids and MDMA will not be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized.

Calling substance abuse a public health issue and not a criminal one, Sheila Malcolmson, BC’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions last month said, “By decriminalising people who use drugs, we will break down the stigma that stops people from accessing life-saving support and service.”

As it battles the Russian invasion, Ukraine has approved a draft bill (on June 7) to legalise cannabis use for medicinal purposes to help its citizens fight “a massive increase in psychological harm and distress”.

On June 9, Thailand legalized cultivation of marijuana in an attempt to turn cannabis into a cash crop. With its well developed medical tourism industry and tropical climate ideal for growing cannabis, Thailand, according to an AP report, is trying to make a splash in the market for medical marijuana.

What about India?

In India, drug consumption or possession is a criminal offense. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985 is the main legislation dealing with drugs and their trafficking.

Currently, the NDPS Act only adopts a reformative approach towards addicts. It gives addicts immunity from prosecution and imprisonment (if found guilty) if they volunteer to undergo treatment and rehabilitation. However, there is no provision for relief or exemption for, say, first-time users or recreational users.

Section 27 of the NDPS Act prescribes imprisonment of up to a year or a fine of up to Rs 20,000, or both, for consumption of any narcotic drug or psychotropic substance. It makes no distinction between addicts, first-time users and recreational users. This was the section invoked in the recent arrest of actor Shah Rukh Khan’s son.

Critics of the Act point out that while the NDPS requires law enforcement to target drug trafficking, it is the end-users who are affected more.

According to a report published by Vidhi Center for Legal Policy in 2020, arrests for personal consumption accounted for 97.7% of NDPS cases in Maharashtra in 2017, and 97.3% in 2018.

Last year, the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had recommended a more humane approach, avoiding prison, for drug users and addicts. This was suggested after the Department of Revenue – the NDPS Act’s nodal administrative authority – had asked several ministries and departments to suggest changes to the law.

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