All Drugs Should Be Decriminalized, According to This Panel of 22 Medical Experts

April 4, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

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From marijuana to heroin.

Should all drugs — from marijuana to heroin — be legal? A panel of 22 medical experts called together by Johns Hopkins University thinks so.

They released a new report, published in a leading medical journal called The Lancet, urging governments around the world to decriminalize all nonviolent drug use and possession.

“The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production, and trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national drug laws,” panel commissioner Chris Beyrer, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a press statement, “but these policies are based on ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded.”

Essentially, the report is a stab at the “War on Drugs,” which was initiated by US President Richard Nixon in 1971 in attempts to focus on eradicating illicit drugs and punishing offenders with incarceration. In the decades since, the strict, prohibitionist approach has proven to be widely ineffective, and some refer to the war on drugs as a “trillion dollar failure.”

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The report cites a multitude of ways in which the current prohibitionist policy approach has failed: the policies have "directly and indirectly contribute[d] to lethal violence, disease, discrimination, forced displacement, injustice, and the undermining of people’s right to health.”

Specifically, the authors contend that “criminalization of drug use fuels HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis transmission within prisons and the community at large.”

Further, the researchers argue that current drug policies are discriminatory against racial and ethnic minorities as well as women. Next month, the comprehensive report will be presented at the UN General Assembly Session, and the researchers advise that the UN delegates figure out how to deal with drugs on a global scale and base their decisions on the available scientific evidence.

According to the researchers, numerous studies have revealed that the current laws and policies on drugs have had no measurable impact on supply or use over a 50-year period — and you know what they say, the definition of “insanity” is repeating the same thing and expecting different results.

Plus, not only is there ample research against the current prohibitionist drug approach, but there’s support for decriminalization thanks to countries like Portugal and the Czech Republic which have already decriminalized all non-violent minor drug offenses. These countries have showed that in real-world settings, policies for drug decriminalization can have positive impacts on society.

According to the report, decriminalization leads to "significant financial savings, less incarceration, significant public health benefits, and no significant increase in drug use.”

Importantly, the experts say it’s critical to draw a distinction between drug use and drug abuse, which is a key difference between the policies used by Portugal and the Czech Republic, and countries which enforce drug prohibition.

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Just like the alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century showed, it’s simply unrealistic to expect that laws that state complete abstinence is the only option will prove to be effective — people will simply take their drug use behind closed doors. However, this is where drug use can spiral into drug addiction, and in the case of drug overdoses, people are much more reluctant to seek out medical professionals due to the fear of being charged with a crime.

Further, there’s a lot of misconception about the safety of certain drugs that are legal, like tobacco and alcohol.

"The idea that all drug use is dangerous and evil has led to enforcement-heavy policies and has made it difficult to see potentially dangerous drugs in the same light as potentially dangerous foods, tobacco, and alcohol, for which the goal of social policy is to reduce potential harms," the report states.

Of course, even after potentially decriminalizing drugs, it will take time to reshape public opinion and current misconceptions about drug use and abuse, and decriminalization won’t solve all of the complex societal problems overnight. But it’s a step in the right direction.

"The global 'war on drugs' has harmed public health, human rights and development,” says Beyrer. “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."

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