North and South America have half of the world’s heroin abusers, 45 percent of cocaine users and a quarter of marijuana users, according to a report from the Organization of American States (OAS). The current approach, the “war on drugs,” is severely lacking in support in the modern day, with numerous experts suggesting a more liberal strategy that re-phrases drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one. This idea has been yet again proposed in a 200-page report from the OAS, urging American leaders to rethink their policies in the interest of users across the continents. Their argument takes several stands, looking at addiction as a health problem, considering the severe harm done by the drug trade, and the financial impact on both law enforcement and organized crime groups.
The Drug Use Report
The purpose of the report was to prevent a starkly realistic portrayal of the impact of drugs across the Americas. José Insulza, secretary general of the OAS, said it is intended “to show the volume of money that changes hands and who benefits from it; to show how it erodes our social organization and how it undermines the health of our people, the quality of our governments and even our democracy.”
In addition to this, the report looks at the policies that have been implemented to date and the consequences if the problem isn’t dealt with more intelligently. The overall conclusion is that increased access to treatment, reduction of criminal punishments for use of drugs and strategies tailored to the conditions in the individual countries are the best approaches.
The Drug Trade
The damage done by the drug trade is one of the key points raised to support the viewpoint. As an example, Latin America produces essentially all of the cocaine consumed by Western users. The trade is run by criminal organizations, which have risen in power and come to undermine the rule of law in the region, breeding corruption, creating violence and destroying human rights. Human rights activists and journalists who expose the violence and politicians who refuse to be corrupted are at significant risk. The biggest damage, however, is to citizens caught in the crossfire between criminal gangs. Overall, the drug trade kills thousands each year across places like Central America, Mexico and Columbia.
The current system is financially beneficial only to the criminal gangs who supply and produce the illicit drugs. Nobody would buy alcohol from a gang, because it is available across the Americas and the companies who make it have standards to abide by. The black market in drugs, however, relies on those gangs entirely. According to the secretary general Insulza, this generates around $151 billion in retail for the gangs across the continents. This funds other illicit activity, and the industry also saps money from governments on both continents. In 2010 alone, the US spent $15 billion on the war on drugs, both internationally (significant chunks of the money goes to Columbia, for example) and domestically. The current system, in short, is a financial black hole.
Drug Abuse: It’s a Health Issue
The core message of the document is that addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal one. This has been stated numerous times, but the report emphatically states that decriminalization of drug use should be the basis for all public health strategies. It echoes the commonly stated criticism that addicts shouldn’t be punished for having what is widely recognized as an illness.
Drug addiction reprograms the addicts’ brains to crave drugs, so the choice to continue to use an illicit substance isn’t a moral failing; it’s more like a diabetes-sufferer having hyperglycemia after unknowingly consuming a sugary snack. Drug cravings are a symptom of an illness in exactly the same way hyperglycemia is a symptom of reduced insulin production. Perhaps the diabetes sufferer consumed too much sugary food throughout his life and consequently developed type 2 diabetes, but we don’t morally chastise him for it. Drug users have a mental health issue, which requires treatment as opposed to criminal punishment.
Sounds Good, But Is There Enough Support?
The reduction of penalties for drug abuse is obviously vital to this approach, but the support for the idea is rarely in line with the recommendations. The report isn’t in favor of legalization of all drugs—it advocates legalization of marijuana but suggests a decriminalized approach for other drugs. This would essentially render drug offences legally equivalent to traffic violations, which are rarely jail-worthy. While some of the 35 member states are receptive to the legalization of marijuana, they didn’t find any notable support for the decriminalization of any other currently illegal drug.
Despite this predictable setback, the report adds to a growing body of thought which should be nagging at politicians all over the world. Criminal approaches to tackling drug abuse don’t work; it’s essentially a punishment for suffering from a health condition. While it may be easier to avoid controversy if the idea is quietly brushed aside, you can only metaphorically cover your eyes and pretend you don’t see the evidence for so long.