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marijuana-istock[By Kunal Naïk]

Many countries are distancing themselves from the failed War on Drugs, by adopting drug policy reforms that are focusing on human rights, and public health, since the “tough on drugs” approach is not working and represents a massive loss of money that could be used more efficiently and has caused more harm than good.

In the United States of America for example, the country that initiated the failed War on Drugs, 23 States and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and have gone further by making marijuana legal in 4 States so far. Legal marijuana is the fastest-growing industry in the United States and if the trend toward legalization spreads to all 50 states, marijuana could become larger than the organic food industry, according to a new report obtained by The Huffington Post.

In 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), offering countries around the world, including Mauritius, a unique opportunity to adopt a new stance on drug policy and lead the way to implement reforms that will work. It is sad to note that the new Government has chosen to have a Zero Tolerance against Drugs approach. Once again Mauritius will not look towards the future, but rather will focus on methods from the past. Methods that have failed to achieve their aim. This policy is based on the wrong idea that repression is the only method that will actually lead to a “Drug Free World”.

Adopting repressive strategies will prove detrimental in the long run. The Government of Mauritius needs to understand what The Global Commission on Drugs clearly states in its report, that is, the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals, communities and societies around the world. Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.

The Government of Mauritius should imperatively take into account that the strategy of a drug-free world through repression has failed, having ultimately failed to curb the drug trade. When the Single Convention on Narcotic drugs was introduced 50 years ago, and when President Nixon launched the US government’s war against drugs, 40 years ago, policymakers believed that severe enforcement against those involved in the production, distribution and consumption of drugs would lead to the shutdown of drug markets such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis, and thus to a “Drug Free World”. In reality however, the volume of international drug markets, largely controlled by organized crime has increased exponentially during this period.

These repressive methods the Mauritian Government will set in motion are based on the strict application of the law against those involved in the production, distribution and consumption of drugs. As a direct result of repressive laws many consumers of illicit drugs find themselves behind bars.  It is important to note that since the introduction of Methadone Substitution Therapy (MST) and Needle Syringe Programs (NSP) in 2006 there has been a decrease of 48% among new HIV infections among people who inject drugs (PWID).

However, because there is no treatment as of yet for HCV (Hepatitis C Virus), the figures are more alarming with 96% of PWID being infected. Therefore because of the lack of harm reduction services such as condom distribution, Needle Syringe Programme and Methadone Substitution Therapy in prisons, it can be said that a person effectively enters the HIV Factory, where he or she will be exposed to HIV and HCV (Hepatitis C) infections. Furthermore, incarceration prevents people from finding a job once they reintegrate society, due to the lack of a certificate of character, thereby adding to the cycle of Poverty.

This stigmatization of drug users at all levels shackles people in an inability to meet their needs and those of their family.

In the end it comes down to supply and demand, and this cannot be addressed with repression, only. Mauritius has a lot to learn from other countries such as Switzerland, that are distinguished by policy on drugs at once independent, innovative, pragmatic and balanced – the Four Pillars Drugs strategy. The Four Pillars Drugs strategy is a coordinated, comprehensive approach that balances public order and public health in order to create a safer, healthier community, it is based on four principles – Harm reduction, Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement and has resulted in:

  1. Dramatic reduction in the number of drug users consuming drugs on the street
  2. Significant drop in overdose deaths
  3. Reduction in the infection rates for HIV and hepatitis.

The government can also learn from models of regulations  such as the decriminalization of Drugs in Portugal that have been proven to work, by effectively reducing the power of organized crime and to protect the health and safety of their citizens.[i]

Politicians need to adopt drug policies that are based on hard empirical and scientific evidence but also have a pragmatic approach, and not just aim to please the general public, who are more often than not misinformed on Drugs, and guided by fear.

Drug policies must be based on human rights and public health and not only limited to law and moral judgements. Together, we should stop the stigmatization and marginalization of people who use drugs, and those involved in the lower levels of production and distribution. We need to urge the Government to treat drugs, as a matter of public health concern.

We need to understand that there is no drug free society, and that it always comes down to supply and demand. A demand generated by multiple reasons, chief among which is Poverty. The success of any initiative should be measured primarily in terms of reducing risks to health, safety, well-being of individuals and society.

As Ethan Nadelmann, Director of Drug Policy Alliance, said in his brilliant and insightful Ted Talk Why we need to end the war on drugs”; “Our true challenge is to learn how to live with drugs so they cause the least possible harm and in some cases the greatest possible benefit.”

[This blog entry first appeared on ION NEWS and is reproduced here without permission because of its value in the debate]

[i] Hughes, c.e. and Stevens, a. (2010) “What can We Learn from the Portuguese decriminalization of illicit drugs?” british journal of criminology Volume 50, issue 6, pp.999-1022

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