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A child of the ’80s grapples with the failures of the ‘war on drugs’

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The iconic “This is your brain on drugs” PSA hit American TV screens in 1987, and it still sends a powerful message. But the conversation needs to be bigger.
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War has been declared on the “war on drugs.” Not by violent cartels but by economists, public health workers, human rights advocates and others who believe that punitive, blanket prohibition is not only failing but has done enormous harm. Thousands took to the streets of more than 100 cities across the globe today, “reclaiming” the United Nations' International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking by protesting the fallout of the drug war, from health crises to mass incarceration.

“According to estimates, the drug war costs in excess of $100 billion annually to enforce and has failed to diminish drug markets or reduce use,” states an advisory from the coalition behind the Support. Don’t Punish: Global Day of Action.

I was stunned when I read that. I hadn’t seen the statistic that over half of federal prison inmates in the U.S. are held on drug convictions, and another showing that as the number increased from the 1980s to today so did the use of illicit drugs. I hadn't read about executions of drug offenders in Indonesia and China, or about orphaned children in poor communities where drugs are plentiful and related health services are not. I hadn’t heard that delegations from Latin America, Europe and Africa called for policy reform at the U.N.’s session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March, or that alternative strategies to the status quo were put forward by five Nobel laureates and other experts at the London School of Economics in May. Drug policy isn’t a big part of my life because drugs aren’t part of it. But my community, local and global, is deeply impacted by the drug war, and I need a deeper understanding than the 1987 PSA where a son tells his father: “I learned it by watching you.”

That line was tattooed on my 8-year-old brain by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Along with the infamous frying-pan spot, it scared the hell out of me, and that was the idea. I never even knew what was in the plastic bag that got the son in trouble.

Mystification of drugs is dangerous, says Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Global Drug Policy Program of the Open Society Foundations, which promotes human rights, education and social justice through grants and other initiatives (including working with members of the Support. Don’t Punish coalition). “[People] will experiment, and the more reliable information they have the safer those experiments will be.”

No one is arguing the devastating effects illicit substances can have, but current efforts to demystify and decriminalize cannabis have fueled a larger discussion about the demands of a world that is nowhere near drug-free. "Decades of evidence conclusively show that the supply and demand for illicit drugs are not something that can be eradicated. They can be managed, either well or badly. They are currently being managed badly," states the London School of Economics report Ending the Drug Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy. Supported by the Open Society Foundations, the report asserts that despite more and more enforcement spending worldwide, drugs have gotten cheaper and more pure. The authors call for massive redirection of resources toward public health-based policies of harm reduction and treatment, insisting that the war on drugs "has failed based on its own terms."

“I think if we’re open-minded and willing to accept that options other than prohibition should be under discussion, then we will learn something from it. But as things stand, prohibition is sold as the only option, and that dramatically limits how effective we can be,” says Malinowska-Sempruch, who has helped formulate policy at the Global Fund and the World Health Organization and co-authored her native Poland's first national AIDS program. She got into this line of work 20 years ago as an HIV educator, and that experience allowed her to see the drug war—and drug users—from a different side. “I’ve never met a drug user who wants a dirty needle," she says, adding that among them, addicts represent roughly 15 percent.

Addiction wasn’t as well understood in 1961, when the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs—the foundation of coordinated global drug policy—was established. Malinowska-Sempruch hopes Support. Don’t Punish will send the message that the system should reflect what we’ve learned and adjust where it’s ineffective or counterproductive. She points to HIV epidemics in Eastern Europe and Central Asia due to drug laws impeding services like needle exchange, and to shocking violence in Latin America heightened by destabilization of illegal markets. Here in the U.S., the social and economic costs are motivators for the decriminalization and even regulation of cannabis, though the Office of National Drug Control Policy “rejects the false choice between an enforcement-centric ‘war on drugs’ and drug legalization.”

Malinowska-Sempruch also sees the false dichotomy. For her, opposing the drug war is not about championing a free-for-all. It’s about bringing control policy that’s a generation old into this century, tailoring it to the cultural realities of different countries and ensuring that it does no harm. “On one side of the spectrum you have total prohibition; on the other side of the spectrum you have full regulation. I think we’re going to fall somewhere in between. So I agree that we will never be buying heroin in a supermarket.”

People will buy it anyway. Outcomes of the war on drugs suggest that no matter what measures are taken, there are addicts in need of interventions and curious kids in need of information. How best to serve them will be up for debate at the U.N. General Assembly in 2016.

“There really are people across the globe who are wondering whether their national policies are the wisest. And I think there is now this really significant and impressive willingness to learn from each other,” Malinowska-Sempruch says. Maybe that means taking the conversation about drugs out of the frying pan, or at least telling kids what’s in that plastic bag.

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Erin Ryan

Erin got her first newspaper job in 2002 thanks to a campfire story about Bigfoot. In her award-winning work for ...

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