“Punitive action is not the only response”

Should we decriminalise cannabis? Or legalise it? Or, as in one option discussed by the French government, make its use punishable only by a fine? Two members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Michel Kazatchkine, former director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, and Ruth Dreifuss, former president of the Swiss Confederation, came to speak at Sciences Po at a debate with Henri Bergeron, director of the Sciences Po Centre for the Sociology of Organisations, and Didier Jayle, professor of addiction studies at CNAM.

The failure of current policy

“Looking back over the last four decades, drug control policy has not accomplished its goal.” For Dr. Michel Kazatchkine, the evidence of prohibition's ineffectiveness is overwhelming: there are more drugs on the illegal market, drugs are more readily available than ever and drug use is increasing. In his opinion, continuing with a policy that is costly, raises issues concerning the freedom to dispose of one's own body and, above all, induces a culture of illegality through the real and widespread violation of the law is no longer an option.
 
But beyond the problems intrinsic to repressive drug policy, the policy’s application causes a whole series of negative consequences. First, explains Kazatchkine, the criminalisation of drug use has worsened the AIDS epidemic and continues to impact the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis. Next, the “war on drugs” has driven the development of state and government-sponsored violence and corruption in many parts of the world. Not to mention that mass imprisonment, particularly affecting racialized groups, is a reality and that “repression has always been used as a tool of social control.” Finally, Kazatchkine points out, on top of the health, security and human rights aspects come the geopolitical and urban management issues.

New approaches to break the deadlock

Ruth Dreifuss explains that in view of the current state of the decriminalization debate in France, there is no one path to follow. Internationally, various options have been experimented, ranging from simple “tolerance” of drug use (as in the Netherlands), to the formal elimination of penalties for drug use from the criminal justice framework. On this point, there are also several examples: changes may concern one or all drugs (Portugal), replace criminal prosecution with an administrative penalty (Israel), or simply abolish all sanctions (Colombia).
 
For Dreifuss, there are two crucial aspects. First, we have stop dealing with drug use within the criminal justice framework because a criminal record is a real obstacle in contemporary society. Second, what she calls “acts preparatory to use”, i.e., production or transport, should also be decriminalised to prevent the new norms from reproducing the punitive logic that exists today.
 
With regard to the current debate in France, Dreifuss argues that “a small step forward is a good thing, but if it’s small step in the wrong direction then we would be better to do without it”. In her view, a plan to make cannabis use a minor offence, punishable only by a fine, is incoherent with the French situation. Cannabis use here is among the highest in Europe and, according to a 2016 survey funded in part by LIEPP, 84 percent of the French population considers the current policy ineffective and 50 percent are in favour of cannabis use being authorised under certain conditions.
 
These specialists see France as an “anthropological anomaly” because it is so hard here, socially and politically, to get the debate off the ground. Yet the major issues today are not the result of the drugs themselves, but of the policy that struggles to deal with them. According to Dreifuss, “we must move towards regulation of the drug market, taking account of the dangerousness and consequences of the various substances”.
 
Article by Luis Rivera-Velez, PhD student at Sciences Po.
 
“Decriminalisation of drug use: issues and challenges”, debate organised by LIEPP (Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Public Policy Evaluation), the Health Research Chair (fr) and OSC (Sciences Po Observatoire sociologique du changement) (fr)

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