Drug abuse is an issue that affects almost everywhere on earth, both rich and poor nations. Solving it is going to take a complex, long-term, and multifaceted approach. That is the goal of the planned 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the Global Drug Problem.
The last UNGASS dealing with global drug policy was in 1998, and set a goal of "a drug-free world" by 2008. A 2012 report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime found that goal had failed miserably. The report showed that in 2010, between 153 and 300 million people on earth using an illicit substance at least once that year, and between 99,000 and 253,000 people died of drug-related causes.
For that reason, it is clear to many people in the global community that the time has come for new approaches. It is with this in mind that, on April 30, 2015, The Brookings Institution hosted "Improving Global Drug Policy," a meeting of more than 100 non-profit organizations to discuss new ways the international community and its nations should deal with the global drug problem, in anticipating of the upcoming United Nations meeting.
A new approach
Currently, the United Nations' approach to combating the global drug problem is under the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, headed by Russian diplomat Yury Fedotov, who condemns decriminalization and harm reduction efforts as making it more likely people will abuse illicit drugs.
Reflecting an opposing perspective, in an open letter co-signed by a variety of organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, there is a call to alter existing drug laws to better reflect human rights principles. The goal of these organizations is to try to make international drug policy more humane, but also more effective at helping addicts get the life-saving help they need.
This letter reflects the way in which many nations on earth are rejecting the traditional punitive approaches to drug use, which focuses on law enforcement to suppress illicit drug use. Current theories on the best ways to combat a social drug problem treat substance abuse as a public health issue instead, reducing the stigma of drug use so that addicts can realize their need for recovery and have access to recovery programs.
To provide case studies, the Brookings Institution focused on the drug laws and its effects on the harmful consequences of drug use in fifteen countries equally distributed between Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The goal was to determine which approaches were the most effective at stopping illicit drug use.
Brookings scholars Vanda Felbab-Brown and Harold Trinkunas authored a report in which they referred to these different approaches as "an emerging global 'dissensus.'" Nations in Europe and Latin America, as well as some U.S. states are leading the forefront on a new public health perspective that emphasizes expanding access to drug treatment rather than punishing drug users with jail time.
Russia and China are leading the push for continuing strong efforts at eradicating drug use through punitive measures, arguing that losing existing laws will only increase the number of drug users and power of illegal smuggling and dealing operations that manufacture and sell these substances.
All of these different positions agree that substance abuse and addiction needs to be dealt with and eradicated as much as possible, because it has been the source of unspeakable harm for both individual users and society as a whole. It is still an unsettled question whether or not existing drug laws actively discourage drug use, or whether that effort would better be spent focusing on expanding treatment, as well as more general economic development opportunities that make illicit economies less attractive.
According to the Brookings report, the discussion should be an open one that "injects realism into the global discussion of drug policy objectives." Next year's UNGASS should consider all of the different facets and options to best deal all of the negative consequences of substance abuse.