Pien Metaal: ‘A global consensus on drugs feels further away than ever’

While some say the “war on drugs” leads to widespread human rights violations, others claim it is the only way to combat powerful crime organisations. Meanwhile, nothing seems to be working to stop the expansion of illicit drugs, which are as popular as ever. We spoke to an expert about the present, and the future, of a complex debate.

Text: Josefina Salomón  Illustration: Jonh Gómez

In the space of a week, two United Nations agencies published their analyses of the state of illicit drugs in the world. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) World Drug Report points to a further increase in the availability and demand for illicit drugs, which the agency blames for rising violence and environmental damage. A document by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, calls on states to prioritise an approach to drug policy that focuses on harm reduction and away from punitive responses.

Many countries, meanwhile, have been testing different approaches. In Uruguay, for example, the cannabis market has been regulated for more than a decade and the Brazilian Supreme Court has just decriminalised its use. Others, however, have backtracked on experiments with decriminalisation of other drugs after they proved less successful – as in Oregon, where an increase in public drug use led to the re-introduction of penalties.

Pien Metaal, a drug policy expert who has been analysing the impact of prohibition for decades, says that while the developments are positive, the polarisation of positions on drug regulation policy is worrying.

Josefina Salomón (JS): The UN World Drug Report concluded that there has been an increase in drug production and consumption. At the same time we are seeing an expansion of crime groups and violence. Why haven’t the strategies that have been implemented so far worked?

Pien Metaal (PM): The drug market is a very attractive illicit market, which generates a lot of profit. Drug prohibition has only made that market even more attractive, even more profitable. As long as prohibition is not recognised as the problem, things are going to continue to develop. It is striking to see that even when UN agencies recognise that the current model of drug control has problematic parts, with important issues such as the right to health being affected by prohibition, or that forced crop eradication has dire consequences, they still do not recognise that it is the very model [of prohibition] that does not work.

The drug market is a very attractive illicit market, which generates a lot of profit. Drug prohibition has only made that market even more attractive, more profitable.

JS: There seem to be two positions on the so-called “war on drugs”. One that says that it generates human rights violations and other harms, and a second that says that the threat is so great that it has to be confronted with force…

PM: Yes. We are seeing a huge polarisation between the positions because while some sectors want to introduce the issue of human rights into the debate, others believe that this has nothing to do with the drug control agenda. There is a group of countries that maintain that repression works and that this is the strategy to follow, no matter what.

It seems that the global consensus on drug policy is further away than ever and I think the latest UN world report reflects that. It seems that in this debate the UN is caught in the middle. On the one hand, they call for respect for human rights and on the other hand they fail to recognise that much of the violence that arises is the result of an illicit economy resulting from the prohibition they advocate. And in that sense, I think we are further and further away from a solution because the effects of all this have spread over so many territories, over so many spaces, that everything has become very complex.

JS: There are some countries that have experimented with decriminalisation and even drug regulation. In Portugal, for example, the exercise seems to have been more positive, but in other places, for example Oregon in the United States, the model was not successful and they had to backtrack… Why is this happening?

PM: There are many different models of regulation that have been implemented in different places, particularly around cannabis.

In the case of Portugal, the decriminalisation model was successful because drug use started to be seen as a health issue and not as a criminal offence or a public order issue. This has been very useful, especially around heroin, because not all drugs are the same, and heroin users were the most affected by the system that criminalised them. So the new public health policy approach has led to a huge gain in that sense because the number of overdoses has dropped tremendously.

I understand that in Oregon, part of the problem is that there is not an adequate public health system to support it and that may have been the main reason why the model didn’t work.

Every country and every system is different. On the one hand, there is the case of Uruguay, where cannabis comes under a system regulated by the state at all stages, from production to distribution for consumption. In the case of the United States, there is a more liberal model, where the market defines all of this, with state controls of course, but basically they are different models.

There are small advances in more and more countries that are looking for alternative ways to regulate, mainly cannabis. There are small countries like Malta and Luxembourg and others like Germany that tried to regulate, but they all ended up decriminalising, but they are all positive steps towards removing consumption and distribution from the criminal sphere.

In the case of Portugal, the decriminalisation model was successful because drug use began to be seen as a health issue and not as a criminal or public order issue.

JS: In all the examples we talk about cannabis, how would the regulation of cocaine work?

PM: Well, that is a debate that is just beginning. I think that first cannabis would have to be regulated more successfully and on a larger scale, to show that it is possible to live with these substances peacefully and that the effects of regulation are positive. But here we have to evaluate how to measure success, what the parameters are going to be. The success of the “war on drugs”, for example, is measured by the number of people imprisoned, the amount of drugs seized. So how would we measure the effects of regulation, the drop in problematic drug use, the drop in violence?

There is still a lot to be developed, but if the focus of regulation is on improving public health indicators and reducing poverty in rural populations dedicated to cannabis, coca or poppy cultivation, it would change the logic of the control model in favour of humanity and coexistence.

JS: What is the outlook? 

PM: I think polarisation will continue, at least in the short and medium term. There is a good sector of societies that want easy solutions and simply want tougher policies against criminals and traffickers, who continue to be the expression of evil in our societies and, honestly, I don’t see much change in that framework, nor do I see enlightened leadership.

There is not yet a perception that violence is partly the result of prohibition and that regulation can reduce violence. But there is a clear link between prohibition and violence because of the economic issue. And of course, until there are more political leaders who support that idea, it is going to be very difficult to take it forward.

What is a glimmer of hope is that finally, perhaps, the UN drug control community will recognise that it made a mistake when in 1961 it included the prohibition of coca leaf chewing, as well as all traditional uses of cannabis and opium in the Single Convention, a consequence of a prevailing colonial outlook. The critical review that the World Health Organisation is currently doing, to define whether the coca leaf should continue to be under the level of control it is now. That would be a big step forward.