'I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more.'

That was Kofi Annan's conclusion a few days ago, in a speech before the World Health Assembly. For those of us who work at the intersection between drug policy and criminal justice, Mr. Annan's words are a reassuring sign that the reality, which we see unfolding on the ground here in South East Asia, is indeed being acknowledged at the very highest levels. 'In what other areas of public health do we criminalise patients in need of help? Surely it cannot be the job of the criminal justice system to prescribe remedies to deal with public health concerns. This is the job of public health professionals.' Yet users and low level dealers continue to be pushed through our criminal justice systems and into already overfull prisons. 

The UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov has said, 'the [drug] conventions are not about waging a “war on drugs” but about protecting the health and welfare of mankind.'

We should focus on that objective. Current drug policies are not achieving that goal. So the question is: what policies would enable governments and health authorities to counter and reduce the social and health harms that drug use can cause? Mr Annan offers three solutions: 

  1. Decriminalise drug use. Punitive measures do not work and put lots of people in prison where their drug use may actually get worse.
  2. Strengthen treatment services, especially in middle and low-income countries.
  3. Learn how to live with drugs so they cause the least possible harm. Even though we would like a “drug-free world”, this is not a realistic ambition.

These are the three headings of an evidence based national drug policy. But as Mr. Annan notes, 'sadly, drug policy has never been an area where evidence and effectiveness of policies have led the way. His full speech is available here.

Contributed by Marcus Baltzer