The Failure of Prohibition

Brian Houlihan explores the consequences of a failed policy.

Ireland favours a policy of drug prohibition to deter people from consuming drugs, and like many countries it continues to see a rise in the number of drug users. Ireland criminalises drug users in the hope to deter others, yet arrests for possession and cultivation increase year on year. The current policy is not having the desired effect, yet the alternatives are rarely considered.

Former US President Richard Nixon was the first to use the term ‘War on Drugs’ in a speech to congress in July 1971. Since, and prior to this, the policy of prohibition has been enforced globally, aided by the 1961 UN Single Convention on drugs and other international agreements.

The aim of drug prohibition is to reduce the production, distribution and consumption of illegal drugs. At a United Nations General Assembly Special Session in 1998, under the official slogan: ‘A Drug-Free World: We Can Do It,’ a campaign was launched to have a drug free world by 2008.

In June this year The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its annual report. Amongst the findings were that 200,000 people die worldwide each year from drug abuse. In 2010, 5% of the world adult population aged 15-64 used illegal drugs at least once, and by 2050 this could rise to 25%. Cannabis remains the most popular substance with an estimated 119-224 million users – it is also the most widely produced and trafficked. Opium production in Afghanistan has risen by 61 per cent, 3,600 to 5,800 tonnes between the years 2010-11. Various statistics available on the drug trade show that despite the efforts of authorities the industry continues to grow.

In 2000 the Portuguese government took radical steps in response to public concern over drugs by taking a different approach: they decriminalised drug possession and use. A key step was to take the responsibility for decreasing demand and managing dependence from the Ministry of Justice and place in under the mandate of the Ministry of Health. The approach is to view drug dependents as patients rather than criminals. Possession and personal use cases are dealt with in special courts not criminal courts. Each offender’s situation is judged by legal experts, social workers and psychologists while treatment and further action is decided upon. To clarify: decriminalisation does not mean one can carry, sell or openly use – that would be legalisation.

According to a CATO Institute 2009 White Paper by Glenn Greenwald entitled ‘Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies’ the number of drug addicts has halved from 100,000 to 50,000. Also in the report Portugal’s drug usage rates are cited as being amongst the lowest of the EU member states. Drug related diseases and overdoses have been reduced even more significantly, which has been linked by some experts to the new policy of offering treatment with no threat of legal ramifications to addicts.

A special issue of the weekly peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet on HIV in people who use drugs singled out Portugal’s decriminalisation policy for helping to effect a decline in HIV infections, drug consumption, and addictions in the country.

Closer to home some of the recent findings in Ireland suggest drug use is increasing, and statistics also show that deaths from drug use have risen. The 2010/11 Drugs survey issued by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs reveals that the level of recent and current drug use remains stable in Ireland. Men and those aged 15-24 have the highest recent use of illegal drugs and the overall prevalence rate for last year’s use of any illegal drug was 7% in 2010/11, compared to 7.2% in 2006/07.

Cannabis continues to be the most commonly used illegal drug, with 25% of respondents having ever used the drug, 6% reported having used cannabis in the last year and 3% in the last month. New psychoactive substances (4%) and cocaine (1.5%) were reported as being the next most widely used illicit drugs. The survey found that in Ireland lifetime use of any illegal drugs increased from 24% in 2006-7 to 27% in 2010-11 among (15-64 years). The latest research shows that deaths associated with drugs have risen by 51% over a six-year period.

In 2011 there were 17,710 recorded drug offences. 12,679 were for personal possession, 3,888 were possession for sale or supply, 580 were for cultivation or manufacture of drugs, and 41 were for importation of drugs, with 522 listed as ‘other’ drug offences.

Figures from the Health Research Board showed that the number of deaths have jumped from 422 in 2004 to 638 in 2009. In the same six-year period, according to the report a total of 3,334 deaths could be linked to drugs, with research showing 2,015 were caused by poisoning, while the other 1,319 were deaths brought about by certain types of trauma or medical conditions. Alcohol was accountable for 40% of all poisoning deaths during the six-year period, while heroin caused 21%.

Drug policy reform is unlikely to happen in Ireland anytime soon, though Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan is to put down a private members bill relating to cannabis. The details are as of yet unavailable but it is likely to be defeated. Sativex, a spray made from cannabis, looks set to be made available on prescription for MS patients later this year. For now, drug users remain criminals and nothing else.’

Any reform needs to happen on an international scale, as this is a global issue. Perhaps it is time institutions such as the EU, UN and others take a serious look at alternative policies.