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Mike Trace : THE WAR ON DRUGS

Mike Trace is chair of the International Drug Policy Consortium and advised the Global Commission on Drug Policy with its recent report (see Now Then #40). That report concluded that "the global war on drugs has failed" and called for an end to "the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others". It is not surprising that the Commission asked for his advice, because Mr Trace's former roles include: Deputy UK Drug Tsar, President of the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction, and Chief of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Demand Reduction Section. I spoke with Mike about his involvement with the Commission, the problems with global drug policy, and the possibility of reform. How did you become involved with the Global Commission on Drug Policy? I was one of six experts asked by the Commission to submit a paper to them on drug policy. After the Commission reviewed my paper I was asked to present my conclusions at a meeting in Geneva during January 2011. The Commission is notable for its high profile commissioners, like Kofi Annan, George Schultz, Richard Branson, and a host of current and former world leaders. Do you think their presence on the Commission will help change the debate? Very much so; for two key reasons. Firstly, their contribution strengthens the report's credibility. If the Commission were composed entirely of drug policy academics and activists it would meet with the response "well they would say that, wouldn't they?" Secondly, by bringing together varied talents the Commission approached the problem as a macro-political issue. For example, commissioners such as Paul Volcker and Richard Branson brought a businessman's head to the discussions. By representing a variety of backgrounds, and all at a senior level, the Commission was able to normalise the issues and present a more accessible and credible message. I think this is important if we are going to overcome the impasse in the debate. What are the aims of the Commission? Whilst I am not a commissioner, from what I can see the aims are largely twofold. Firstly, there is a drive from Latin America, after the success of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, to stimulate debate on a global level, partly because the problems in Latin America can't easily be separated from the global problem. Secondly, it was felt that there was a need to break the taboo around the drugs issue, and that this aim could be advanced by a high profile panel. Do you think that breaking the taboo is needed? Yes. World leaders have a dilemma. On the one hand, they realise privately that current policies are not cost effective and are moving in the wrong direction. On the other hand, the issue is subject to strong public opinion. The arguments for change are complex, and are difficult for leaders to explain without appearing like they're going soft on drugs, so they avoid challenging preconceptions. In Western Europe we have become complacent; the current approach is unsupportable, but not quite bad enough to force change. Advocating change is fraught with political pitfalls, so why would a politician stick their neck out? The report is careful to say that there is no clear answer, but everyone on the Commission is clear that punishment for drug use is not the way to go. So what is needed is a bit of political bravery, as leaders aren't doing any good by sitting on their hands. One of the main recommendations of the Commission's report is that drug policies should be based on human rights. What is meant by this? The core message is that drug policies must accord with the principles outlined in UN human rights treaties. Some aspects of the implementation of the UN drug control conventions are at odds with these rights, so there is a conflict that needs to be resolved in the favour of the human rights treaties. There is also the problem that, in attempting to tackle the drug problem, some member states are routinely violating their human rights obligations under international law. We see this in a number of states where drug use and possession is subject to Draconian laws and a subversion of judicial process. For instance, in Thailand in 2003 they took a highly punitive approach to the drug problem, resulting in many instances of extrajudicial imprisonment and killing. Another pressing issue is the use of the death penalty. There are 30 countries that still have the death penalty for drug offences. Whilst the majority of these do not make use of it, there are some that frequently do; China, Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia in particular. Using the death penalty for a drugs offence is a clear breach of international human rights law. Lastly - though this list is not exhaustive - there is the thorny issue of the rights of indigenous peoples, some of whom use drugs as a part of their culture. Bolivia comes immediately to mind, where President Morales has refused to continue the criminalization of the chewing of coca leaves by his people. Both the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances ban the chewing of coca, so they conflict with the right of indigenous peoples to pursue as a cultural practice the chewing of coca. By contrast, the UN human rights treaties protect this right. There is, therefore, a rubbing point between the human rights approach and the drugs control regime. The report calls on the UN to show leadership and help end the punitive approach to drug use. Do you think it is ready to? It's certainly heading in that direction, but slowly. There are some encouraging signs coming from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Whilst we've got used to the idea that the UN is suppressing debate around reform and protecting the status quo, in the last few years there have been hints of a gradual change of approach, and a creeping willingness to consider alternative solutions. What the UN has not done is to explicitly, as an institution, say that it is committed to finding better solutions; to abandoning a policy that leads to the widespread criminalisation of drugs users. We have seen some language along these lines squeezed out in policy documents, but it is not clear enough. Several commentators, notably Martin Wolf, the Financial Times' chief economics commentator, argue that the UN is unlikely to rise to the task so individual governments should. What do you think the chances are of the UK Government doing so? Well, as I said, in Western Europe there is a complacency issue. In the UK this is particularly evident as we've been relatively successful in a number of fields. Our harm reduction initiatives have been reasonably effective, we don't send many people to prison for possession of drugs, and there is a strong emphasis on the need to encourage users into treatment. We've knocked the hard edges off our drug policies and this has resulted in less impetus to change them. Yet what we see is that the political rhetoric isn't following reality. There's an inclination to advertise our enforcement milestones, such as big drug busts, and less of an emphasis on our successes, or otherwise, in addressing the social and health problems. Whilst our law enforcement agencies do take an intelligent approach to dealing with organised crime, what I would like to see is a greater focus on undermining the drug market itself, rather than individual dealers, and on addressing the problems of bad neighbourhoods, where kids grow up next door to crack dealers. In many senses the Brits are doing a good job. We don't abuse human rights and we don't try to arrest and imprison everyone who possesses drugs. But in terms of taking the kinds of public health measures that are widely known to be successful, I think we are limiting our success by putting up unnecessary parameters. For example, injecting clinics and heroin prescription programs have evidenced considerable success where they've been trialled, but there is a resistance to their adoption in the UK. We don't adopt these policies because we don't want to appear soft on drugs, irrespective of the direction in which the evidence is pointing. There is a disjuncture between the presentational needs of government and the evidential reality. Unfortunately, the tendency is to shy away from the evidence in favour of rhetoric that's perceived to sit well with the electorate. Further reading: Report of The Global Commission of Drug Policy Trace, M. 'Drug Policy: Lessons Learned and Options for the Future' Wolf, M. 'We should end our disastrous war on drugs' )

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