Editors’ Note: We’re delighted to publish a guest post today from Ingrid Walker, an Associate Professor of Arts, Media and Culture in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Prof. Walker presented a paper, “Between Addiction and Interdiction: A Phenomenology of Using in the U.S. Drug War,” at the recent ADHS conference. Here, she offers some reflections on the recent report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. A link to the report is at the end of the post.
While the other passengers on my return flight from the Buffalo ADHS conference dove into summer reading, I expressed my academic geekitude by pulling out a report published in June by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP). From the opening declaration that “the global war on drugs has failed,” I unexpectedly found myself engaged in the policy equivalent of a page-turner. The GCDP’s report is well researched and makes a set of recommendations that fundamentally confront drug control policy and practice in countries that have championed a “war” on drugs. Following the lead of organizations and states that have focused on illicit drug use as a human rights issue, the Commission takes a progressive position on drug use, policy, and interdiction and pulls no punches as it calls for profound revision of drug policies worldwide. The report makes a persuasive call for depoliticized, knowledgeable discourse and action.
The GCDP marks the 50th anniversary of the UN Convention on Narcotics Drugs and the 40th anniversary of the U.S. drug war with a global effort modeled on the 2009 Latin American Commission. Leading figures such as Kofi Annan, George Shultz, Cesar Gaviria, Ernesto Zedillo, Ruth Dreyfuss, and Mario Vargas Llosa convened to “bring to the international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies.” The report comes out of a review of current practice in drug control and a series of public research papers that evaluate drug production and supply, various modes of demand reduction, criminal justice challenges, and the role of organized crime in the drug trade.
Among the compelling principles and findings in the 20 page report is an overt focus on reversing the “criminalization, marginalization, and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others” and challenging rather than reinforcing misconceptions about drug markets, users, and addiction. The Commission acknowledges that ideology has driven the drug war at all levels and calls for national governments and the United Nations to ensure that international conventions “accommodate robust experimentation with harm reduction, decriminalization, and legal regulatory policies,” and undergo frequent review and revision. Specifically, the report notes that that nations’ policy reform efforts should not have to be in conflict with international “drug control imperialism.” Furthermore, it acknowledges the vested interest of various groups and decision-makers in maintaining a law enforcement focus and looks to multilateral agencies to strategize and lead in the reform of drug policy.
The Commission points out that the United Nations drug control system hinders policy reform and specifically identifies the United States as the key player in repressive drug policy and enforcement. While the Obama administration is acknowledged for expressing the futility of a drug war, it is also explicitly charged to reform its punitive practices and to lead such reform internationally. Unfortunately, the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s official response to the report completely ignored its key findings and recommendations. (Focusing instead on talking points specific to ONDCP policy campaigns, spokesman Rafael Lemaitre sidestepped the GCDP’s challenge and enacted the very kind of politicking that the Commission criticized.)
Editorials by high-profile figures have drawn attention to the report’s sweeping recommendations and the seriousness of the Commission’s challenges to influential governments. Jimmy Carter’s New York Times piece argued that the drug war is neither morally nor economically affordable and suggested that the GCDP report “will give some cover to political leaders who wish to do what’s right.” In a Wall Street Journal editorial, Commissioners George Shultz and Paul Volker reiterated the need for honest and open debate about drug control.
What stops honest debate about drug policy, the drug war’s goals and funding, and drug use is that those with a stake in the war—such as the ONDCP—cast debate within limited frameworks. These are both accurate and inaccurate ways of seeing drug use in that they are but part of the larger picture. From my perspective, one of the most critical aspects of the GCDP’s report is its claim that of the estimated 250 million drug users around the world, less than 10% are addicts. Many users, perhaps the vast majority, practice controlled use and are misconstrued by the systems with which the U.S. and many other countries perceive or engage them. The GCDP maintains that “the majority of people who use drugs do not fit the stereotype of the ‘amoral and pitiful addict,’” and calls for a challenge to rather than reinforcement of common misperceptions about drug markets, users, and dependence.
Thus, an aspect central to an honest debate is the admission that users come in many forms and practice varieties of use. To revise what the report finds as largely misguided approaches to drug use, we must recognize that not only are most users not addicts but that controlled or casual use of substances is as much a reality as is addiction. The report addresses this reality in a variety of ways. For example, it notes that interdiction has amplified opportunities for profit and increased violence around the drug trade. One of its recommendations is for law enforcement to “manage and shape” more sustainable illicit markets by “creating the conditions where small-scale and private ‘friendship network’ types of supply can thrive,” while eradicating violent operations or those that affect the general public. This trend of thinking, to create a sustainable socialization of use, is a far more progressive and realistic methodology by which we might address use and users.
In practice, there are many different kinds of users with many different reasons for using—and there is a broad universe of substances used to manage moods and experiences. Acknowledging this radically changes how we think about drugs and their use. “Drug use” refers to a much broader category of substances than those on the controlled substances schedules. We are all users in one way or another and we use a variety of substances (and practices) to manage our moods and attention
Prominent in the report’s 11 recommendations is the recognition that not every solution works within every context, whether the concern is treatment, harm reduction, decriminalization, or regulation. Experimentation and sharing of ideas, practices, and outcomes as well as new tactics and better measures of success are strongly encouraged. Clearly, the time of a drug war has past. The Global Commission on Drug Policy has opened the door with a formidable call to action: it’s time for researchers and practitioners with a stake in this conversation to inform and shape international and local policy and healthcare practice regarding substance use.
“War on Drugs: Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy,”
June 2011: http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/Report
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.