Juan Manuel Santos is the former president of Colombia, which makes him a bit of a drug-policy expert by default.
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Coca production is both a key means of subsistence for rural farmers as well as a clear sign of the severe economic imbalance between the global south and north. As such, international cocaine policy — such as the 25 years’ worth of the weed-killer glyphosate sprayed onto 4.2 million acres of Colombian farmland, a U.S.-backed interdiction campaign that Santos opposed — is propelled by political and economic concerns rather than public safety or public health.
Which makes cocaine a typical drug. Politics, and not science or public health, inspire the classifications and restrictions imposed on illegal drugs including cannabis and heroin as well as cocaine, according to a report released this week from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a Switzerland-based organization of former heads of state, of which Santos is a member.
“It was a political decision” to classify cocaine and cannabis as dangerous drugs, and to allow other powerful and deadly narcotics, like opiates, to be prescribed by doctors, Santos said, as per the Guardian. “According to the studies we’ve seen over the past years, substances like cannabis are less harmful than alcohol.”
Other members of the commission include British billionaire and drug-policy reform advocate Richard Branson; former U.K. deputy prime minister Nick Clegg; Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the U.S. federal reserve; and former presidents and prime ministers from Nigeria, South Africa, Chile, Portugal, Poland, Switzerland and others.
Individual countries are free to set their own drug laws, but three international treaties agreed to under the auspices of the United Nations also influence drug-control policy. The most recent international treaty on drug control was signed in 1988, which means neither scientific understandings nor practical policies have been reviewed in more than 30 years. Controls are recommended by medical and scientific experts, but — like most laws — are voted on by U.N. member-states part of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which leaves classifications ultimately beholden to politics.
And that is a significant problem, said Ruth Dreifuss, the former president of Switzerland and chair of the commission. “The international system to classify drugs is at the core of the drug control regime,” she said, “and unfortunately the core is rotten.” Dreifuss wants a total overhaul of standing drug classifications, and wants health and medical experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead it.
Though some countries, including the United States, have bullied others into abandoning liberalized drug laws because they violated these treaties, domestic developments make a further mockery of the international drug-control order and further prove the commission’s point.
Thirty-four U.S. states have passed liberalized cannabis laws that violate American federal law, which continues to claim that cannabis is a highly addictive drug with no medical benefit. That statement is directly contradicted by a steady stream of scientific research, including a significant review conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
These bad policies have worse effects than mere hypocrisy. As much as 80% of the world’s population lacks access to life-saving and life-sustaining medicines, and “all of the reasons” why “are linked to repression and prohibition-based control systems,” according to the commission.
Restrictive policies set along political lines have fueled both the ongoing human and natural destruction in Colombia as well as the American opiate crisis, according to the commission. More than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses in America in 2017, an annual toll greater than the total number of American dead during more than a decade of combat in Vietnam.
But now what? The former heads of state saying their current counterparts should do something else, something different, all have something in common — they are all former heads of state, no longer in a position to act politically. The first step is admitting you have a problem. If the former heads of state weren’t quite able to fix the issues they’re not identifying, figuring out why and mustering the political support to put science, and not power or votes, in charge of drug policy might be the commission’s greatest benefit, rather than telling us yet again what most already know.
TELL US, do you think drug classifications have more to do with politics than science?