The war on drugs cannot be won, claims the multibillionaire Richard Branson and the high level group he chairs, the United Nations Global Commission on Drugs.
Actually it is already lost, with destructive consequences for people and society. The world community therefore needs to rethink its strategy if it is to gain control.
Two generations after the UN adopted its Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the challenges are just as great, to say the least. Worse yet, society has no idea what can be done to change course. The enigma of addiction remains, and it strikes the youth.
Young people born after 1980 are in France called “Génération Précaire” – the insecure generation, and in England, the IPOD generation. Today’s youth are insecure about their own identity, they are pressed by conflicting expectations, they are in debt, and they are searching for a place in modern society.
This generation of youth is politically empowered through lower age of suffrage, it is technologically well-equipped and competent, and lives in a globalised world. At the same time, it is detached from many time-honoured values and ways of life.
These young people develop a lifestyle characterised by different forms of addiction. Appetite, wishes and inclinations get out of control, and an abnormal pattern of behaviour is created. Addictive substances, and also gaming and gambling, cell phones and internet use, unhealthy eating patterns, sexual activity, shopping, excessive exercising and health diets – all become substitutes for participation in work, education, and family and leisure time.
Sociologists talk about “narcoticising dysfunction” when a phenomenon such as the addiction becomes dominant to the extent that it displaces societal activities. The addiction concerns both use of chemical stimuli that affect the central nervous system as well as new forms of behaviour. Both themes are increasing in extent and both attract a huge amount of public attention but give no change. It is almost drugged absence of citizenship.
Need for global change
This sends a strong signal of the need for a change in narcotics politics. However, the signals about which means that are needed to achieve change are weaker and controversial. Maybe the suggestion about decriminalising people who use addictive substances that do not harm other is not the best point from which to start a new orientation.
In Norway, there has so not far been support for decriminalisation. It is quickly perceived as legitimisation, even if it is not meant that way. A parking ticket is no longer a criminal act, but is still carries a penalty.
Futile to fill up the prisons
The high level group consists of a former Secretary General of the UN, four former presidents in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Switzerland, several former ministers of foreign affairs (including Norwegian Thorvald Stoltenberg), leading intellectuals, actors in the industry and human rights advocates.
In June 2011 they presented their report, supported by expert reviews in several fields. Imprisoning tens of millions at the lowest level of the illegal drugs pyramid is not the solution, according to the group. What is gained is full prisons and ruining the lives and the families of the arrested, without reducing access to illegal drugs.
The power of the illegal drug industry is not weakened. At the same time, the UN shows that the use of cannabis has increased substantially the last years, and most of it is made and distributed illegally.
The police catch the small
It is apparent that the drug trade is better organised that the actions of the police. Everywhere, not just in Norway, it seems like the police only catch the most insignificant actors in the pyramid, and confiscate the least harmful substances.
Today’s global and national drug actions, many based on the Nixon-doctrine “war on drugs”, do not work. Public resources are limited, and we cannot continue to spend billions on interventions that do not reduce the problem.
There must be a stop to criminalisation, marginalisation, and stigmatisation of people that use intoxicating substances, but do not harm others, says the high level group. We need to challenge, rather than reinforce the misperceptions of the drug market, drug use, and drug addiction.
EU research on large scale
The increased illegal use of drugs can affect how society functions, and the solidarity of society, says EU. Therefore, a five-year project has been initiated with more than 100 researchers from 25 European countries, supported by an international expert panel, to study the extent of drug use, what shapes drug use takes, and treatment measures.
The project has participants from the humanities, social and behavioural science and medicine. The purpose is to track and analyse drug use both in society and in families, and uncover individual characteristics and paths to addiction.
How can we develop a new policy for prevention and social control; what actions can reduce the harm? Europe needs new factual and objective knowledge, not more loose assumptions or moral reprimands, says the EU in its action plan for the drug field.
Ever more new addictions
Moreover, addiction continuously takes on new forms; gambling, internet games, eating disorders, use of tranquillising pills, mixing of medical drugs and intoxicating drugs, steroids, etc. Some of this will probably seem less harmful to society that the use of illegal drugs. However, it is important for Europe to think, discuss and take the right actions, also in relation to the new forms of addiction.
The EU project also hopes to be able to develop a global indicator for addiction. This will make it possible to compare developments, treatments and policies in different countries and regions, and thereby create a firmer foundation for action. This kind of common foundation is missing today. If we manage to construct a “global addiction footprint” it can be used all over the world in the fight against unwanted and harmful addiction.
Facts – not opinions
The universities of Bergen and Stavanger participate in the EU project, which will run until 2016. Our wish is that updated knowledge will reach the Norwegian research environments, politicians, health administrations and organisations. The EU cannot promise to solve the mystery of drug addiction, but it will ensure that the best possible foundation for understanding the seriousness of the problem, treatment forms, law regulation, politics etc, also will be made public in Norway.
As Norwegian partners, we collaborate actively with the international experts in the project to create a picture of what kind of lifestyle we can expect from the coming generations. Perceptions about the future help us clarify what possibilities we have to lead the development in a direction acceptable to society and to avoid the pitfalls and dead-end of today’s drug policies. Norway needs new knowledge in both areas.
Jan E. Karlsen is Professor at the Department of Media, Culture and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger. Maurice B. Mittelmark is the head of Department of Health Promotion and Development at the University of Bergen.