Crises and radical thinking on drug policy

Reform has always been a “two-steps forward, one-step back” undertaking.

It’s sad that drug policy reform must always be wrapped tragedy but alas – in the context of drugs – crisis has historically been the mother of invention.

It was in the face of thousands of overdoses and the highest HIV prevalence in Western Europe that Switzerland introduced effective heroin-prescription programmes, safe injection facilities, needle and syringe-exchange programmes and low-threshold methadone services.

Helped along by lawmakers who were not afraid to lead from the front, these policies resulted in making Switzerland’s HIV prevalence among people who use drugs one the lowest in Western Europe, at about 1.4 per cent.

In Portugal, the year the country witnessed 1,430 new HIV infections among people who use drugs (accounting 52 per cent of all new infections), the government introduced dramatic reforms, decriminalising all drugs and establishing model services for drug users.

Almost 10 years later, new HIV infections among people who use drugs dropped to 164 (15% of all new infections).

It was a similar HIV crisis in the UK in the mid-1980s that spurred the then-Conservative government to launch a number of harm reduction interventions that greatly reduced HIV among people who inject drugs.

Now, as Latin America faces its own supply-side crises with tens of thousands of drug-related killings, gross human rights abuses and overflowing prisons, governments are increasingly vocalising a desire to take bold action toward reform of failed prohibitionist policies. 

In 2009, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy – including the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, as well as leaders in journalism, politics, academia and literature – called for a paradigm shift in the approach to drugs. This was followed by a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy that encouraged “experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”

Subsequently, numerous Latin American governments have openly discussed forms of regulation, including government sale of marijuana or licencing private facilities.

However, drug policy reform has always been a “two-steps forward, one-step back” undertaking and while creativity is being sought in the Americas, Europe is losing some of its pioneering spirit.

Austerity, in some contexts, is a danger to gains made in HIV prevention, among people who use drugs. In Greece, the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) warned of an increase in the number of newly identified HIV cases among people who use drugs, from between 3 and 19 a year from 2001 to 2010, to 113 new HIV cases as of July 2011.

The Greek government has increased services for drug users to address the situation but the EMCDDA cautions, that “the level of activity is still insufficient to meet the demand within the injecting drug using population.”

In other cases, a nascent abstinence-agenda is trying to manufacture a bogus tension between treatment models – suggesting that providing life-saving services to drug users, like needle-and-syringe exchange programmes, is at odds with ensuring availability of abstinence-based treatment for those who want it.

Some other lawmakers may argue that services to drug users are poor investments in lean times, ignoring the fact that it is immensely cheaper to prevent blood-borne viruses and bacterial infections like HIV, than treat them.

This is the current global paradox in drug policy.

While a new approach may indeed be rolled out to reduce black market violence in Latin America and other parts of the world, a regression to old, expensive and failed ideas in Europe may revise costly and avoidable crises from the past. 

And, perhaps, inspire some fresh thinking once again.

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch is the director of Open Society Foundations Global Drug Policy Program

A drug user injects heroin. Photograph: Getty Images

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch is the director of Open Society Foundations Global Drug Policy Program.

Getty Images.
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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.