Oct. 01 2018

Global Policy Experts Talk Drug Regulation

Control of narcotic drugs has been dominated by policing and incarceration in most countries, including the United States, but Columbia Mailman School students recently heard from a panel of experts who want to see drug control in all countries more closely resemble the regulation of tobacco and alcohol.

In 2011, the Geneva-based Global Commission on Drug Policy was established to reimagine and advocate for evidence-based and human-rights-informed drug policies. Since its conception, the Commission has published seven evidence-based technical and policy reports on the global public health consequences of drug prohibition, as well as strategies to mitigate them. Its most recent report concludes that regulation—rather than prohibition—will better combat the harms of illicit drugs and the black market.

A panel discussion of the report’s findings at the Faculty House on September 26 examined the evidence for global drug regulation. The event was convened by the Columbia Mailman School’s Program on Global Health Justice and Governance, a new program within the Department of Population and Family Health, and the Columbia University Department of Psychology.

“We should start with the acknowledgment of the failure of current policies [of drug control] and the indisputable need for reform,” said panelist Michel Kazatchkine, former executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Policies such as the harsh criminalization of minor drug offenses that punish drug users have created a situation, “the result [of which] can be found in graveyards, and in the incarceration of people,” added Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria. 

Global drug-control systems are largely governed by three international conventions, each of which claims to promote the health and welfare of humankind, but actually, have led to many unintended consequences. According to the Commission, these have included repressive laws, over-incarceration, a spread in infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, and skyrocketing overdose mortality in the U.S., with the brunt of the problem felt in the most vulnerable communities.

“In the best-case scenario, current drug policies mitigate the harms [of drugs],” said Ruth Dreifuss, current Chair of the Commission and former President of Switzerland. “In the worst, they produce them.”

The Commission’s recent report advocates for an approach to the regulation of narcotic drugs that is incremental, cautious, evidence-based, and guided by respect for human rights and public health. By regulating these drugs, governments can both limit their harms of while also taking drugs out of criminal hands. The panel noted that the decriminalization of drug possession and consumption for personal use may be a useful first step and emphasized the need for policymakers to open debate and dialogue on drug regulation with all relevant stakeholders.

“We share the Commission’s commitment to leveraging evidence to call for policies that protect the health and human rights of all people,” said Marta Schaaf, director of programs and operations for the Program on Global Health Justice and Governance.

“It’s rare to get the chance to hear eminent persons, including two former heads of state, talk about what everyone recognizes to be a politically-challenging paradigm shift from criminalizing virtually everything to do with drugs to treating drugs more like we treat alcohol and tobacco,” said panel moderator Joanne Csete, adjunct associate professor of Population and Family Health. “Our students had a rare chance to hear a discussion of this topic that wasn’t heated by ideology but rather informed by facts.”