Human Writes: We have lost the war on drugs

  • Wellness
  • Sunday, 28 Oct 2018

Imagine a disease that causes almost half a million deaths a year, that has children losing parents, that triggers boundless crime and violence. Surely we’d scramble for solutions. Surely global bodies would not trot out the same useless strategies for years. Surely no leader would call to kill those affected. That, though, is the reality of the global drug epidemic.

In Manila, blood-stained bodies of alleged suspects are found daily on the streets, the result of extrajudicial killings by vigilantes or the police. Often, the faces of the murdered are wrapped in plastic tape, their hands tied, with a note – or sick meme. In one case, a grinning mouth and eyes were drawn over the wrapped face of a dead man.

The careless disregard for life, and the disrespect for the dead, are the toll of the “war on drugs”. The bloody trail left by this war questions our very humanity.

Across the Pacific, it’s also grim: 2017 was the worst year ever for American drug overdoses, with 200 deaths a day, report US health authorities. That’s more deaths than from car crashes, the Vietnam War or guns. Grandparents have had to step in to care for orphaned children. This crisis, which began with a rise in legal prescription painkillers, has been fuelled by fentanyl, a synthetic drug 50 times stronger than heroin.

human writes war on drugs has failed
Protesters holding a banner that says “fight the dictator” during a rally to call for an end to the killings in the so-called war on drugs of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AP

Modern drugs are more dangerous than ever before. And far more available.

Yet we still hear leaders – including our own – blathering on about becoming drug-free. A “Drug-Free Asean” was a goal set by Asean in 1998 and then again in 2000, with a target year of 2015. No matter that they missed that; the goal was reaffirmed just last week.

The United Nations called for a “drug-free world” in 1998, and then 2008 again, with the slogan “We can do it”. Um, really? A push for policy reform failed in 2016, the fantastical rhetoric remains. Who are they trying to kid?

In fact, we have not even “remotely reduced” the global supply of drugs, says a report that came out earlier this week.

The UN drug strategy of the last 10 years has been a “spectacular failure”, says the report from a network of 174 non-governmental organisations under the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

The report catalogues the carnage of the last decade:

> A 145% rise in drug-related deaths in the decade, with 450,000 deaths in 2015 alone;

> Almost 4,000 executions for drug offences;

> Around 27,000 extrajudicial killings in drug crackdowns in the Philippines since June 2016;

> More than 71,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2017 alone;

> And a global pain epidemic, with 75% of people lacking access to pain treatment such as morphine.

There is also a huge prison population related to drug use. Globally, one in five prisoners are behind bars for drug offences, mostly possession for personal use; in Malaysia, this figure is more than 50%.

Meanwhile, cultivation, consumption and illegal trafficking are now at record levels, with a 130% rise in opium poppy cultivation since 2009.

The report comes ahead of a key UN meeting next March where there is a chance to set a new roadmap for drugs. The IDPC has called for an end to punitive policies and “unrealistic” objectives and for more “meaningful goals” that improve health.

Globally, there is a shift towards decriminalisation, whereby drugs remain illegal but people caught with small amounts of drugs do not go to prison.

Portugal successfully decriminalised drugs in 2001; it has saved money and improved public health with no rise in drug use. Canada and Uruguay have gone further and legalised cannabis, which will be regulated like alcohol.

Malaysia has been shifting towards a public health approach. Back in the 1990s, bodies of drug users could be found on the streets of Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur. Palani Narayanan, then an outreach worker and co-founder for Ikhlas, a drop-in centre in Chow Kit supporting drug users, remembers finding bodies in abandoned buildings.

The introduction of voluntary clinics offering methadone treatment and needle and syringe exchange services led to a drop in deaths and a massive decline in HIV infections.

Now a senior adviser for the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, he still thinks about those lives lost in Chow Kit.

“We could have saved so many if we had decriminalised drugs and got people to come forward and get treatment.”

Criminalising drugs pushes users towards criminal organisations. It makes drugs more dangerous, even deadly.

We’ve lost the war on drugs. The only winners have been the drug lords. We need to view drug addiction not as a crime, but for what it really is – a health issue.

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at

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