2015 has been a turbulent year for the international War on Drugs, with some countries introducing smart and successful new policies, and others making some repressive and disastrous moves. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the best and worst drug policy decisions made this year:
In April, a law that decriminalised the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and legalised medical marijuana, went into effect. The justice minister, Mark Golding, welcomed the reform: “Now that they can actually cultivate for research purposes, we can expect that the outcomes of the endeavours will be more profound, and with the economic opportunities that this will bring, we see this as part of what, I hope, will be a transformational industry for Jamaica”. Jamaican policymakers have plans to turn marijuana into one of the country’s leading international exports.
In May, the Colombian government defied the US government and ordered an end to the aerial fumigation of coca plants that has been occurring since 1994. Over four million acres of Colombian land – including parts of the Amazon rainforest – have been sprayed with herbicide chemicals in an attempt to quell coca farming. Carlos Salinas, formerly the Washington director of Amnesty International, denounced the tactic for being “indiscriminate” and “adversely affecting the already fragile food security of the inhabitants as well as destroying medicinal plants which are of deep cultural significance”.
In late December, Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, signed a decree to legalise the cultivation and sale of medical marijuana.
In October, President Obama’s administration announced the gradual release of over 6,000 federal prisoners – many of whom were convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. The New York Times reports that many of these prisoners were imprisoned for crimes relating to crack cocaine; a substance that carries harsher penalties than simple powder cocaine – indicating the potentially racist undertones of the legislation. Jesselyn McCurdy of the American Civil Liberties Union commended the decision: “Far too many people have lost years of their lives to draconian sentencing laws born of the failed drug war. People of color have had to bear the brunt of these misguided and cruel policies. We are overjoyed that some of the people so wronged will get their freedom back.”
In addition, marijuana legalisation came into effect in the state of Alaska in February. Taxation of the plant’s sales is expected to bring in around $8million in annual state revenue – impressive for a state with less than one million residents! Similar legislation came into effect in Oregon in October. A variety of improvements in public access to medical marijuana also occurred this year in the states of Georgia, Hawaii, and New York, among others.
In November, the Irish Drugs Minister – Aodhán O’Ríordáin – outlined his plan for a “radical cultural shift” in the country. He proclaimed that Ireland will decriminalise the possession of small quantities of a range of currently illegal drugs, including marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. This important move has the potential to end the criminalisation of addicts – many of whom need medical help, not imprisonment.
O’Ríordáin also announced the introduction of supervised injection facilities; environments in which drug users can legally use intravenous drugs, such as heroin, with safe equipment and in the presence of health experts. Such facilities exist in several European countries and have proven effectiveness at reducing overdose rates and HIV/AIDS transmission.
On April 28th, the Indonesian government rounded up eight nonviolent drug offenders, tied their limbs to poles, and shot them repeatedly with M16 assault rifles. Muhammad Prasetyo, attorney general of Indonesia, justified the slaughter on the grounds that Indonesia is “fighting a war against horrible drug crimes that threaten our nation’s survival”. The Indonesia government has been criticised for providing incorrect statistical evidence to rationalise their repressive approach to drug users and traffickers.
In November, Indonesia continued to humiliate itself on the world stage by announcing plans for a drug prison guarded by crocodiles. Budi Waseso, the head of Indonesia’s anti-drugs agency, explained that this would be effective as – unlike prison guards – the saltwater predators cannot be persuaded to show compassion, nor be coerced into leniency. “You can’t bribe crocodiles,” Waseso noted, “You can’t convince them to let inmates escape”.
Among those executed in April, was Zainal Abidin, a 50 year-old man who was arrested for possessing 58 kilogrammes of marijuana. Despite no recorded deaths from marijuana use, the Indonesian government intends to guard people who sell the plant with a predator reptile that kills around 2,500 people annually, before shooting them to death.
Wikileaks cables described “cocaine and hashish use” as being common in the social circles of the Saudi elite. In September of this year, ‘Prince’ Abdel Mohsen bin Walid bin Abdulaziz was arrested in Lebanon after $280million of illegal drugs were found on his private plane. Despite this, no member of the Saudi ‘royal family’ has been indicted on drug offenses.
The situation for non-royals is far more dire. This year, around ninety people have been executed for drug offenses in Saudi Arabia – around one person every four days. The callousness of such punishments is particularly poignant when contrasted with the penalties – or lack thereof – faced by drug offenders within the so-called royalty of the oil-rich desert wasteland nation.
Although the British government is not executing anyone for drug offenses, it has produced one of the most unrealistic and regressive pieces of legislation in its attempts to fight the War on Drugs: the Psychoactive Substances Bill. The bill – which is currently progressing smoothly through Parliament – makes it an offence to produce or supply “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect”. Violators of this law may be sentenced up to 7 years’ imprisonment.
The UK’s Transform Drug Policy Foundation derided the bill for defining ‘psychoactive substances’ so broadly that “it potentially includes a wide range of plants, spices, herbal remedies, over-the-counter medicines, and household and industrial products”. The definition is so broad that lawmakers even included that the prohibition excludes “legitimate substances, such as food”. Politics.co.uk compiled a list of things that will technically become illegal under this new bill, including air fresheners, perfume, and flowers.
The United States has somehow managed to implement some of the best, as well as some of the worst, drug policies during 2015. While it has taken great strides – particularly regarding marijuana reform – the country continues to imprison thousands of people for drugs; around 1 in 10 Americans has been arrested for a drug offense. And it’s not getting much better. In fact, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, almost half of people imprisoned in October 2015 were indicted on drug offenses; this amounted to over 86,000 people in just one month. The United States continues to have the biggest prison population in the world, primarily due to the War on Drugs; despite having about 4.4 per cent of the world’s population, the U.S. houses around 22 per cent of the world’s prisoners.