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Experts call for global drug policy reform as evidence shows ‘war on drugs’ has harmed public health and human rights

Fifty years of drug policies aimed at restricting and criminalizing drug use and minor possession have had serious detrimental effects on the health, wellbeing and human rights of drug users and the wider public, according to a major new report by The Lancet and Johns Hopkins University in the US.

The authors of the Johns Hopkins-Lancet Commission on Public Health and International Drug Policy [1] call for non-violent minor drug offenses including use, possession, and petty sale, to be decriminalized. The report provides compelling evidence from countries such as Portugal and the Czech Republic that have decriminalized non-violent minor drug offenses, and seen significant public health benefits, cost savings, and lower incarceration with no significant increase in problematic drug use.

The authors call for an evidence-based approach to drug policy. With the legalization of cannabis in Uruguay and four US states (Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska), the Commission urges governments considering regulated markets like these to find appropriate ways of evaluating their impact so that lessons can be learned.

The Commission has reviewed the global evidence base on the health impacts of drug policy. The report finds that the biggest contribution to higher rates of infection among drug users is the excessive use of incarceration and the systematic exclusion of people who use drugs from HIV and hepatitis C prevention, treatment and harm reduction (including needle exchange and opioid substitution therapy) – whether in the community or in prison. Indeed, new analysis by the Commission finds that harsher prison sentences are associated with higher rates of hepatitis C infection among injecting drug users.

Evidence also shows that drug law enforcement has been applied in a discriminatory way against racial and ethnic minorities and women, and has undermined human rights. For example, new estimates suggest that prisoners in Mexico are now more likely than before to be subjected to torture and abuse, since the government’s 2006 decision to use military force against drug traffickers.

The report is launched today (24th March) in New York ahead of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on 19th April – the first UNGASS meeting on drugs since 1998.

“The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production, and trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national drug laws, but these policies are based on ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded,” says Commissioner Dr Chris Beyrer, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, US. “The global ‘war on drugs’ has harmed public health, human rights and development. 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.” [2]