The Global War on Drugs Has Unleashed an International Health Crisis, Says Top Health Panel

Zero-tolerance policies have fueled lethal violence, disease transmission, discrimination and forced displacement.

Rally & Concert to End the War on Drugs - MacArthur Park, Los Angeles. November 3, 2011.
Photo Credit: Neon Tommy/Flickr CC

A premiere public health commission warned Thursday that the global war on drugs and zero tolerance policies are unleashing an international health crisis by fueling “lethal violence, communicable-disease transmission, discrimination, forced displacement, unnecessary physical pain, and the undermining of people's right to health.”

A joint initiative of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Lancet, the commission released a report calling for a global transformation of drug policy—towards decriminalization and harm reduction.

"The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production and trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national drug laws, but these policies are based on ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded," declared commissioner Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"The global war on drugs has harmed public health, human rights and development,” Beyrer continued. “It's time for us to rethink our approach to global drug policies, and put scientific evidence and public health at the heart of drug policy discussions."

The researchers based their findings on a review of existing evidence and an “original analyses and modeling on violence, incarceration and infectious diseases associated with drug policies,” according to a press statement.

They concluded that punitive measures that fail to reduce harm are measurably killing people. “The persistence of unsafe injection-linked transmission of HIV and HCV that could be stopped with proven, cost-effective measures remains one of the great failures of the global responses to these diseases,” the authors wrote.

Furthermore, criminalization of drug addiction is slashing access to life-saving medications like naloxone, which can reverse the impacts of opioid overdoses, which are currently an epidemic across North America.

The report concludes that the criminalization of drugs unleashes political and social violence, and that the “mass incarceration of African Americans and Hispanics for non-violent drug crimes has led to deterioration of families and communities.” The researchers point out that the war on drugs has unleashed horrific violence across Central America and Mexico, leading to a spike in homicides that has measurably reduced life expectancy in Mexico and sparked a mass displacement.

The study follows the publication of a cover story in Harper’s magazine in which journalist Dan Baum resurfaced a damning, decades-old quote from President Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman.

Ehrlichman said of the drug war:

“You want to know what this was really all about. The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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