To fight illicit drug use, we must respect human rights

The risks of drug trafficking and abuse are increasing but so are the opportunities to combat these ills, says Jan Milanowski of the Pompidou Group at the Council of Europe

Jan Malinowski, 20 February 2015

The recent execution by firing squad in Indonesia of six persons convicted of drug trafficking offences painfully reminds us how drugs can kill. Indonesia is not alone. Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam use the death penalty against drug traffickers. The traffic of illicit drugs is serious. Drug abuse causes 200,000 deaths worldwide every year – roughly equivalent to the population of a city like Pamplona in Spain – including 70,000 from heroin overdose. The yearly death toll in some countries is said to be higher for drugs than for motoring road accidents.

But the response should not mean more death. The Council of Europe’s 47 member states all reject capital punishment regardless of the offence. The fight against drug trafficking and drug abuse must respect human rights and the rule of law – and it cannot be done in isolation.International cooperation against drug addiction and traffic that has been facilitated by the Council of Europe’s drug policy experts the Pompidou Group is as important today as it was in 1971 when the Group was created in the heat of the French Connection.

We have broadened our membership, which now stands at 37 states, in and out of Europe, forging good relations in the South Mediterranean and the Middle East. Mexico just joined as an observer and should serve as a bridge to enhance dialogue with the Americas. Non-state actors play an important role to preserve the health of our citizens and societies. The financial cost is enormous

Price tag of one trillion dollars

In the United States alone, the price tag of four decades of war on drugs amounts to one trillion dollars, roughly the same as the US government budget for 2015, or US consumers’ expenditure on illicit drugs between the years 2000 and 2010. Data in Europe is piecemeal and difficult to compare. Nonetheless, the European drugs monitoring centre records overall drug policy expenditure in European countries ranging from less than 0.1 per cent to 0.5 per cent of their GDP (the Netherlands or the United Kingdom). Some countries spend hundreds of millions of euros every year in drug treatment and harm reduction policies, but prevention is poorly served. 

Drug-related crime compromises the sustainability of the state. The killings of journalists and students in Mexico illustrate how the drug trade undermines the foundations of democratic society. In Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano paints a grim picture of a Camorra plagued Naples. The permeation of the drug trade in state bodies, in particular the armed forces, is advancing in some African countries. Terrorism and drug trafficking converge in Afghanistan and in many other parts of the world.

The world’s illicit drug market is worth 400 billion dollars. Sales of cocaine in the US and Europe account for one quarter of that. Heroin and cocaine supplies worldwide amount to 500 tonnes of each per year. The European drugs monitoring centre recorded 81 new substances brought to the drugs market in 2013. These substances sometimes have unknown or unpredictable effects. Increasingly, drugs are being produced in clandestine “kitchen” laboratories and sold locally or on the Internet and delivered to users’ letterboxes. Ross Ulbricht, mastermind of the infamous online drugs exchange Silk Road faces a life sentence after his recent guilty verdict, but Silk Road 2 replaced the first version within weeks and others compete to grab a piece of the pie.

Reduce violence and profits

So let’s react responsibly. Executing drug smugglers on death row in Indonesia will not solve its drug problem, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said. José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organisation of American States, said in a recent conference in London that the focus should be to reduce violence and profits associated with drug trafficking. The risks of drug trafficking and abuse are increasing, but so are opportunities to combat these ills.

Demand reduction is just as important as supply reduction and should include prevention, treatment and harm reduction. Past strategies have to be supplemented creatively to fit emerging realities and to protect our youth, people and societies at large. Many countries have integrated harm reduction into drug policies. Israel, a member of the Pompidou Group, has gone a step further, making harm reduction its main drug policy objective. From facilitating treatment of displaced drug addicts from Crimea to organising a conference on drug substitution therapy in Algeria, we are dealing with challenges that illicit drugs pose on our societies, while respecting human rights and the rule of law.

Jan Milanowski is Executive Secretary of The Pompidou Group at the Council of Europe. Views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.