03/06/16 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

This week in preparation for the upcoming UNGASS on the world drug problem, we listen to a debate on whether nations should have alternatives to incarceration for simple possession of drugs, featuring legislators from Canada, Mexico, Nigeria, and Sudan.

Audio file


MARCH 6, 2016


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

This week, we're going to stay with that International Parliamentary Union discussion that we were looking at last week. There were two debates during the IPU's discussion of international drug policy, and possible reforms. They held that at the beginning of February. It's in preparation for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, that will be held in the middle of April.

The IPU and the General Assembly president organized this two-day discussion on drug policy as preparation for the UNGASS. They held two debates. Last week, we looked at the question of whether or not implementing the international legal framework as it currently exists would address the world drug problem. In other words, would partial prohibition of some drugs, and complete prohibition of some other drugs, and a regulated, verging on laissez-faire approach to a handful of drugs like tobacco and alcohol -- is that effective or do we need a change. And the answer was, of course, a resounding, We need change.

This week, we're going to the second debate which they held. The motion for this second debate is simply "States should seek alternatives to incarceration when addressing possession of drugs for personal use." Sounds fairly straightforward. You'd almost wonder how on earth anybody could possibly be on the other side of that debate. After all, alternatives to incarceration have been growing, and growing in acceptance, over the last couple of decades. Indeed, it's tough to find drug warriors who will really stand against that.

They will, they'll simply say that, well, alternatives to incarceration but we still must have incarceration, or really, that incarceration should be the primary approach, but instead of calling it a prison, we'll call it a treatment center. A treatment center with guards, and locks, and people aren't allowed out, and they have to stay until they've served their sentence. But we won't call it a prison. Or some kind of a "gotcha" where we expect someone who's a hardcore drug user, who's been dependent on drugs for several years, to suddenly stop cold turkey because they got caught, and of course when they don't stop cold turkey we drug test them and put them away back into a jail cell, because they weren't able to accomplish an immediate miracle.

We understand with tobacco addicts that they're going to probably quit several times before they actually manage to stop. With alcoholics we understand that quitting cold turkey can be tough, actually with alcohol quitting cold turkey can be fatal, which is why we don't actually have alcoholics quit cold turkey without medical supervision. But we expect people who are long-term users of cocaine, of heroin, or methamphetamine, to stop immediately because after all, naughty naughty.

We seem to be coming around, and yet.

The discussants in this debate: we'll start off with Ms. Laura Rojas. She's a senator in the Senate of Mexico. Joining her in support of the motion will be Mr. Nathaniel Erskine-Smith. He's a member of parliament in the House of Commons of Canada. Speaking against the motion will be Joshua M. Lidane, he's an attorney from Nigeria who's a member of the Senate of Nigeria, representing Gombe South constituency; and Mr. Ibrahim Ahmed Omer, Speaker of the National Assembly of Sudan.

The speakers will be introduced first by Julia Taylor Kennedy. She's a producer and interviewer, hosts a Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs podcast called Impact: Where Business And Ethics Meet. She's also a senior vice president and senior fellow at the Center for Talent Innovation, where she drives qualitative research and writes reports on gender and diversity in the workplace. She's facilitated sessions and advised speakers for major platforms like the Conference Board, the World Economic Forum, and the United Nations, as well as publishing articles in major news magazines such as Forbes and academic journals. Without any further ado, let's get to the debate.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So, once again, the motion is: States should seek alternatives to incarceration when addressing possession of drugs for personal use. And let's begin with Ms. Laura Rojas, senator from Mexico, who is in favor of the motion.

LAURA ROJAS [interpretation provided by the IPU]: Good afternoon, everybody. Why should there be alternatives to incarceration? I'll try to speak from three points of view: the legal point of view, the human rights point of view, and third, from the point of view of the efficiency of public policies. The legal reasoning is simple, suffice it to say that international conventions regulating the subject never say that punishment for the consumer will be specifically deprivation of freedom, that depends on states. The convention of 1961 states specifically that states with people who have drug abuse can, rather than declaring them guilty or punishing them, they can be submitted to treatment and education post-treatment, reintegration and rehabilitation. So the first point is, conventions allow for that, and many states have already opted for non-criminalization and non-incarceration of consumers.

The second point of view is the approach for human rights, and has to do with the fact that criminalization violates the right to health directly, because what the state is doing is opting for punishing the consumers and addicts, rather than helping them to have rehabilitation. An addict who is in prison has much less possibility of being rehabilitated and be reintegrated in society than somebody who, as we have heard yesterday and today, can be considered a person who has an addiction.

And the third argument, which has to deal with the efficiency of public policy. There are many examples in many countries where criminalization not only does not help reducing consumption, but even increases crimes.

And, I'll give you some examples in this respect. In certain countries like mine, the increase of the prison population for crimes relating to drugs is essentially linked to minor violations, with people who have small amounts of drugs for their own consumption. Now this affects the efficiency of the state in combating organized crime. Rather than fighting crimes which truly a larger number of the population, they focus on criminalizing consumers and addicts. So that's my first statement.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Okeh, for our first argument against the motion, Mr. Joshua Lidane, senator, chairman of the Senate Committee on Drugs and Narcotics, from Nigeria.

JOSHUA LIDANE: Thank you very much. I would like to speak against the motion. And in doing so, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: what is the role of the user, the personal use, what is the role? Is he a culprit, or is he a victim? If you look at the roles of the consumer, you look at the role of the supplier, you find that without the consumer, there will be no supplier. If there's nobody to ingest the drugs, nobody will be there to supply it. If there's nobody to be using it, you wouldn't have drug traffickers, you wouldn't have drug barons. So it's very important for us to therefore focus on the user of these drugs, and to see what we can do to, in order to help him.

Because the drugs user, apart from being a danger to himself, is also a danger to the society, he's also a danger to the other people. Governments spend money in treating him because he's an addict, but also, because he takes these drugs, it makes him lose his sense of reality, it divorces him from reality. He's a danger to others, to the society at large. That's why we have a background.

Anybody who engages in criminal activity having to -- also a problem of drug use. In Nigeria, we have problem of Boko Haram. We have had incidents of the Boko Haram attacking people, killing them, attacking women and children, using suicide bombs, using small children, using women, to go and attack people. What kind of person will use that? What kind of person will engage in that kind of activity? It's because they're ingesting drugs. And therefore, we find that most terrorism activities have their basis in drug use and drug abuse. Therefore because we have this kind of problem, what should we do? We should have a situation where people like that are put in the position where they will not harm themselves, they will not harm others. If they are put in prison, government can provide facilities for the prison officials to take care of them, to rehabilitate them, to counsel them, and to do all kinds of things that will make them reasonable members of society when they return eventually to the society. Therefore, I think we should have a look at the user as a culprit, rather than a victim.

Then therefore, assuming that by not considering that they are victims, the plain fact that they are put in prison will enable the prison authorities to take care of them. And therefore, if we say we have to have a, the kind of drugs that are used as -- sorry.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: No, you can sum up, Senator Lidane.

JOSHUA LIDANE: Okeh. So, if somebody is -- if we want to decriminalize the use of drugs and -- drugs used by people, it definitely will present problems because there will be lack of control. How do we control the use of these drugs? And secondly, it will lead to abuse. How do we regulate the use by people so that it doesn't become a problem? In Nigeria for example, I'm told that the kind of drug, cannabis we use, has higher narcotic content than the kind of cannabis that is used for example in Jamaica. So if we decide to -- not to use it, it will be a problem for us. Thank you.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Thank you. We're going to add a little bit of time on, for our representative from Canada here, to make things -- to add parity to the discussion. So, now we'll go over to Mr. Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, MP of the House of Commons of Canada.

NATHANIEL ERSKINE-SMITH: All right. Thanks very much. Good afternoon everyone. So I'm a member of Parliament, in the House of Commons of Canada, and led by our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, we've committed to legalizing and regulating marijuana with a focus on public health. Now I plan to discuss the merits of such regulation, and of other alternative models to incarceration, from drug treatment courts and diversion, to decriminalization where drugs become regulatory offenses without jail time, but first, we need to understand the rationale for incarceration.

Why do we currently criminalize certain drugs? I spoke yesterday of the importance of drawing distinctions between drugs. Mr. Chowdhury raised the same note of caution. After all, we don't criminalize all drugs. Many drugs have benefits: alleviating pain, saving lives. We focus here on harmful drugs. Our object: to prevent the harms to society caused by drug use and abuse. The focus in keeping with our conventions is human welfare.

So what are those harms? And let's be clear, let's make sure those harms are based on science, not the reefer madness of my friend. Primarily these problems are health related. Of 187,100 drug related deaths globally in 2013, addiction related issues both to individuals, mental health issues, and to society, public disorder offenses, impact on productivity, perhaps in the workplace, certainly an effect on kids. A range of bad decision making, including driving intoxicated. We want to lower these harms, yes, and our intuitive reaction is to attack demand. Drug use is wrong, so let's criminalize that to lower incidence of drug use.

Now this, this triggers human rights, and must be justified. Our policy, because it infringes the liberty of persons, it must be effective. Is it? The short answer is no. Usage rates around the world, between 3.7 and 7 percent of illicit drug use, is generally stable. The experience in other jurisdictions, and yes, we do have evidence. The experience in Portugal, American states that have decriminalized, a number of European countries that have decriminalized, usage rates do not significantly rise, do not rise, when a criminal sanction is removed. The infringement of liberty is unjustified.

Worse, worse, prohibition causes substantial harms through its unintended consequences. The stigmatization of the addict, the marginalization of individuals, already marginalized, who need help and yet are kept away from the healthcare system. The empowerment of organized crime, again I said yesterday, of the causal connection between prohibition and organized crime. We are empowering terrorist organizations and organized crime through the creation of a lucrative and violent black market. The Taliban alone obtains more than 25 percent of their financing from the drug trade because of prohibition.

And finally, the displacement of resources to policing from health services. Now safe injection clinics around the world, including Canada, they save lives, yet we spend more money on policing than saving lives through healthcare. Given these unintended consequences, the unintended consequences of prohibition, I have to repeat that letter from 1998 to Kofi Annan from hundreds of signatories around the world: The war on drugs causes more harm than drug use itself. Thanks very much.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Okeh. So now we move to a follow up question. Oh, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.

IBRAHIM AHMED OMER: It's all right, it's all right.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: I'm so sorry. Final opening remarks to my right. I'm so sorry. And let me introduce you. Mr. Ibrahim Ahmed Omer, Speaker of the National Assembly of Sudan.

IBRAHIM AHMED OMER [interpretation provided by the IPU]: Thank you. Thank you wholeheartedly. I would like to begin by saying that our position does not exclude multiple means. However, we reject a proposal that says that one of the means should be incarceration. We do not say that incarceration is the only means, however, we say that incarceration is one of many other means that can be used in a concerted way to attain the desired result. Therefore our position is not rejecting all alternatives provided that we take these alternatives as a package with incarceration, so that we can get the desired result. This is our position, in brief.

However, in the three minutes that I have, I would like to say that this meeting started by talking about the three conventions. The three legal frameworks, and our meeting wants to assess these conventions. Do we want to call this a law, or recommendations? We would like to make another proposal to look at it from a different perspective. Instead of saying that our objective is safety and health, we would like to say that our objective is to preserve the mind. In other words, we are seeking to preserve the mind and not only health and prosperity. Once we look at things in this perspective, the whole picture changes, and therefore the question becomes, is it acceptable for a person to be absent minded, even for a minute? What would that do to others? When he smokes and then he tells us that I am very high and he says that he's taller than the building and he can do this and he can do that, no matter how short is that period, this by itself poses a danger to others.

Therefore, the question that the United Nations must pose is that these three conventions should aim at changing the perspective from taking care of the health and safety to taking care of the mind. Therefore we say that we would like to look at the matter from a new perspective, from a new lens, and if we look at it from the point of view of the presence of absence of the mental faculties, then this becomes by itself a grave danger, and therefore we believe that incarceration may be very important for someone whose mind is, whose mental faculties are not present.

DOUG MCVAY: We're listening to a debate at the International Parliamentary Union, which was held in the beginning of February. The question that they're currently debating is the motion: States should seek alternatives to incarceration when addressing possession of drugs for personal use.

The International Parliamentary Union is hosting this discussion on international drug policy along with the Secretary General of the United Nations as preparation for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, which will come up in mid-April.

The debate is being moderated by Julia Taylor Kennedy. The people in favor are Ms. Laura Rojas, a senator from the Senate of Mexico, and Mr. Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, an MP, member of parliament, from the House of Commons in Canada. Speaking against the motion are Joshua M. Lidane, a member of the Senate in Nigeria, and Mr. Ibrahim Ahmed Omer, the Speaker of the National Assembly of Sudan.

We'll return with this discussion in just a moment. You're listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. And now, let's get back to the discussion at the International Parliamentary Union.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So now, I'll ask a couple follow up questions. First, to those in favor of the motion, and you can answer in whichever order you prefer. What about the argument that we heard from our colleagues on this side of the table, that often those who are addicted to drugs pose a danger, or a threat, to those around them, because it may encourage violent or inconsiderate behavior to others?

NATHANIEL ERSKINE-SMITH: So, first, first I would go back to this notion of, drugs can cause harm, yes, but the criminalization of drugs does not remove those harms. Drug use occurs, it has been generally stable, and so we have to draw this distinction. Yes, how do we curb drug -- how do we curb drug use and the problems associated with drug use? We do have evidence. The last panel spoke about tobacco and the usefulness of education. We all know the usefulness of education and educating kids in particular of the harms associated with drugs. Specifically, we can look at alcohol and the way that we have developed mechanisms related to drunk driving, and enforcing criminal measures against drunk driving and the specific behaviors that we are actually trying to crack down on, the actual harms associated with drugs.

The simple possession of drugs, criminalizing that? That has no effect whatsoever on drug use, and therefore it has no effect whatsoever on the negative consequences of drug use to society at large.

LAURA ROJAS: I think that to generalize, generalizations are never good. The world isn't like that. We're not all equal. And to assume that all consumers cause violence, and that violent people all are related to organized crime, is not an approach which will give us a response to tackle the problem efficiently. United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime in 2010 published a report, which is based on the premise that treatment as an alternative to sanctions is an opportunity not only for the drug consumers that will accept that, but will allow them to go from, instead of a punitive aspect to go to a health one.

Other regional studies, which were published by the Organization of American States and other countries have said that in countries where there were most severe sanctions for the consumption of drugs, it's greater than in those where we [unintelligible] evidence is such that incarceration, criminalization of the consumers rather than helping reduce the problem increases it significantly, and it violates human rights. A clear example is New York the city where we are now. Since the promulgation of the same laws, this city has the harshest sanctions in the United States here, and after reform which gave alternatives to incarceration, there was an important reduction of crimes, which went from 70 percent to 40 percent, and there were 1,500, and this was research from the University of New York. The interpreter apologizes but it was very fast.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Okeh. One follow up question for the other side, and then we'll go to the floor. You get two minutes each for your responses. So building a little bit on the remarks we just heard, can appropriate health interventions, appropriate inter -- rehabilitation, take place for those addicted to drugs if it's mandated within a prison setting?

JOSHUA LIDANE: Thank you very much. I think what I argued earlier was that, if it is within a prison setting, then it's okeh, because you are not violating anybody's human rights. Secondly, you are punishing the person because he has committed a crime. And then thirdly, you are giving opportunity for rehabilitation, reformation, and counseling, and that will be good for the society, it will also be good for the individual concerned. But if we say there is no need for incarceration at all, where do you have this opportunity of giving them rehabilitation, of counseling, or doing that? In a prison setting is the best form in which you can carry out these activities without violating the rights of the person and also without harming the other members of the society.

IBRAHIM AHMED OMER: This requires that we see what are the institutions that can offer treatment. This is a rehabilitation center, and not a prison. That is why there is a need to use precise terminology. A center for treatment, and not a prison. That is why there is a need to put the question clearly. We are speaking of the fact that there is a group of measures which include prison, but imprisonment is one general term. What we're saying is that what we need is to provide treatment services to drug addicts in a rehabilitation center and not in a prison. Excuse me. And also regarding human rights, I don't know if this is among human rights, but the right to commit suicide, the right to lose one's mind.

DOUG MCVAY: We've been listening to a debate at the International Parliamentary Union's annual parliamentary debate. The question that they were debating is: States should seek alternatives to incarceration when addressing possession of drugs for personal use. The people speaking in favor of that proposition were Ms. Laura Rojas, a senator from the Senate of Mexico, and Mr. Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, member of parliament from the House of Commons in Canada. Speaking against that motion: Joshua M. Lidane, an attorney who is the current senator for the Gombe South constituency of Gombe state in Nigeria, and Mr. Ibrahim Ahmed Omer, Speaker of the National Assembly of Sudan.

We'll be back next week. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.