U.N. Report: War on Drugs a Failure

By Pat Anson, Editor

The international war on drugs has been a costly failure that has created a “public health and human rights crisis,” according to a new report commissioned by the United Nations, which is meeting in special session this week to discuss global drug policy.

The 54-page report by the Johns Hopkins–Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health found that many drug policies are based on ideas about drug use and dependence that “are not scientifically grounded” and have been particularly harmful to pain patients.

The commission estimates that about 5.5 billion people worldwide do not have adequate access to controlled drugs for the management of pain. 

“Inequity of access to controlled drugs for pain management and other clinical uses is now a public health and human rights crisis,” the report found. “Yet the obligation to prevent abuse of controlled substances has received far more attention than the obligation to ensure their adequate availability for medical and scientific purposes, and this has resulted in countries adopting laws and regulations that consistently and severely impede accessibility of controlled medicines.”

The commission said there were many “myths and exaggerations” about opioid use that have stigmatized people who use the drugs. And rather than lowering the risk of abuse and addiction, drug prohibition was making the problem worse by forcing some people to turn to the streets for opioids.

“Prohibition creates unregulated illegal markets in which it is impossible to control the presence of adulterants in street drugs, which add to overdose risk,” the commission said. “The idea that all drug use is dangerous and evil has led to enforcement-heavy policies and has made it difficult to see potentially dangerous drugs in the same light as potentially dangerous foods, tobacco, and alcohol.”

Four mothers who lost their children to drugs have been invited by the Canadian government to attend the U.N. assembly on drug policy. One of them is Jennifer Woodside of Vancouver, whose 21-year son Dylan died of an overdose two years ago after he took a pill he thought was oxycodone, but was actually laced with illicit fentanyl.

 “This is a big epidemic,” Woodside told The Globe and Mail. “I think we’ve got our head in the sand if you think it can’t affect you.”

“The war on drugs has been a war on our families,” said Lorna Thomas, who also lost a son to an overdose of oxycodone and will attend the U.N. conference. “The starting point for it, that we were going to punish people out of using drugs has failed. People will continue to use drugs and we need to acknowledge that reality and keep people safe.”

As Pain News Network has reported, counterfeit pain medications laced with fentanyl began appearing in the U.S. this year and are blamed for a dozen overdose deaths in California and Florida. Coincidentally, the fake pain pills appeared just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finalized new guidelines that discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain.  Many patients fear losing access to opioids because of the guidelines.

“These CDC guidelines are brand spanking new. I think it’s hard to draw any sort of conclusions from that,” said Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “I don’t think the Mexican cartels are paying one lick of attention to what the CDC guidelines are. What they see are thousands and thousands of addicts that they can push a product on, whether it be heroin or now fentanyl. And introducing it in pill form is just another way to make a lot of money."

The U.N. report on drug policy recommends decriminalizing nonviolent drug offenses and phasing out the use of military forces to enforce drug laws.

“Policies meant to prohibit or greatly suppress drugs present a paradox. They are portrayed and defended vigorously by many policy makers as necessary to preserve public health and safety, and yet the evidence suggests that they have contributed directly and indirectly to lethal violence, communicable disease transmission, discrimination, forced displacement, unnecessary physical pain, and the undermining of people’s right to health,” the report concludes.

The president of Columbia, which has long been on the front lines of the war on drugs, will urge the U.N. to radically change drug policies.

"Vested with the moral authority of leading the nation that has carried the heaviest burden in the global war on drugs, I can tell you without hesitation that the time has come for the world to transit into a different approach in its drug policy," President Juan Manuel Santos wrote in a column published in The Guardian.       

"No other nation has had to endure the terrible effects of the world drug problem in such magnitude and over such extended period of time as Colombia. The international community can rest assured that, when we call for a new approach, we are not giving up on confronting the problem; we are moved by the aim of finding a more effective, lasting and human solution."