the ft’s martin wolf in his inimitable way joins the growing chorus of decriminalization voices after a new report by the global commission on drug policy:

  • None of this is new. But from such a group it is surely revolutionary.

    Some of the points are particularly compelling. Consider the huge costs of criminalisation, for example. In the US, the number of people in prisons has risen from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3m today, the highest rate of incarceration in the world, overwhelmingly because of the war on drugs. One in 31 US adults is now in jail, on probation or on parole. Though African Americans are just 14 per cent of regular drug users, they account for 37 per cent of drug arrests and 56 per cent of those in prison. It is amazing that more Americans do not find this scandalous. However other countries have followed a similar route, including the UK, with devastating consequences. In some countries, minor drug suppliers are even executed, which is truly horrifying.

    Again, some of the experiments with harm-reduction approaches have been remarkably successful. The report notes, for example, that the Swiss heroin substitution approach, which targeted hard-core users, has substantially reduced consumption and the number of new addicts. It has also secured a 90 per cent reduction in property crimes by those participating in the programme. Countries such as the UK, Switzerland, Germany and Australia, with active needle-exchange programmes, have about a fifth of the US levels of HIV-prevalence among those who inject drugs.

    In July 2001, Portugal became the first European country to decriminalise use and possession (as opposed to supply) of all illegal drugs. Since then, use has risen slightly, but fully in line with the increase in other similar countries. “Within this general trend,” says the report, “there has also been a specific decline in the use of heroin, which was in 2001 the main concern of the Portuguese government.”

    Yet another important point is the irrationality of the categorisation of drugs. Expert ranking of the harmfulness of drugs puts alcohol, for example, well above many illegal substances, such as cannabis.

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