US President Donald Trump is ready to intensify one of the most abusive policy failures in US history – the “war on drugs.” Trump made an incendiary speech at the United Nations decrying the “scourge” of drugs, followed with a pledge signed by 129 nations that evoked language eerily reminiscent of the US policy pronouncements at the height of the US drug war in the 1980s and 1990s.
“It’s vital for public health and national security that we fight drug addiction and stop all forms of trafficking and smuggling that provide the financial lifeblood for vicious transnational cartels,” he told the General Assembly.
That rhetoric, without any reference to the public health nature of drug addiction, must be music to the ears of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose government promptly endorsed the pledge. Duterte’s two-year-old “drug war” unleashed a state-sanctioned campaign in which police and their agents have extrajudicially executed more than 12,000 alleged drug users drug users and dealers.
The nonbinding US initiative consists mostly of general principles including a reaffirmed commitment to “tackle the world drug problem in full conformity with international law.” But if Trump’s approach to drugs starts to drive global policy, a return to the worst abuses of the drug wars seems likely.
Stamping out trafficking and smuggling were bedrock objectives of the old US-led “war on drugs” that filled the world’s prisons, unleashed horrific violence, and corrupted governments. But it didn’t reduce the availability, price, use, or lethality of currently illegal drugs. And no strong-arm measures anywhere have been able to “cut off supply and stop trafficking,” as Trump is urging.
Another announcement last week offered a different approach. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, a nongovernmental advocacy group of international experts and former heads of state, announced an international initiative for “responsible control” of these drugs through decriminalization and regulation, as Portugal has done to noted success in both crime reduction and public health gains.
Governments should reject Trump’s call to re-weaponize the international drug war and instead treat addiction as public health issue. They should convert aspects of the illegal drug trade into well-regulated commerce to help reduce violence and weaken the influence of organized crime.