Questioning the 'war on drugs'

21st November 2019

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At a time when the legalisation of cannabis for medical reasons is top of our health agenda, is it right that the criteria for winning the ‘war on drugs’ should be a drug free world?

  • Panellists

    Maziyar Ghiabi, Wadham Lecturer; Laura Hoyano Associate Professor in Law, Senior Research Fellow and human rights barrister; Kojo Koram from Birkbeck University; Niamh Eastwood from Release 

These contradictions were discussed at Wadham’s Human Rights Forum where panellists questioned whether any political party will have the courage to decriminalise drugs and regulate their use.

“It is the most vulnerable people in our society who are the most affected by drug laws” said Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, an independent charity with expertise on drugs and drug law in the UK. It is not a war on drugs but a war on people she added saying one in eleven adults used an illicit substance in the UK last year. Despite the fact that black people use drugs at a lower rate than white people in the UK, they are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs and 12 times more likely to be prosecuted for cannabis possession compared to the white population, she commented. “Drugs policies work as a way of oppressing certain communities and racial groups”. Despite tough laws prohibiting drug use, including the death penalty in 33 countries, people continue to use them she said, highlighting the failure of criminalisation policies.

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Kojo Koram (Birkbeck University) talked about the perception of our approach to drugs in terms of prohibition and criminalisation as being the norm, saying that in fact the war on drugs is a twentieth century invention which we can see when we look at prohibition laws and how they were signed and implemented. 

He highlighted the emergence of the US as an international actor in the formation of prohibition legislation in the 1890s and today’s mass incarceration of drugs offenders in the US, which was what got Kojo involved in this area of study.

Maziyar Ghiabi called for a change in the public perception of drugs in order for our politicians to change the way they legislate around drug use. Maziyar spoke of the cultural value that drugs have had globally over centuries across the world and the use of drugs in a medical context over hundreds of years in the Middle East. “In Islamic civilisation, medical cannabis existed in the ninth and tenth centuries” he said, adding that it was forgotten about for two centuries and now is coming back.  He highlighted the use of opium as a painkiller historically and today and questioned the concept of ‘addiction’; one can be a music addict or addicted to Netflix without the negative connotations of the word when associated with drugs.  

Laura Hoyano Associate Professor in Law, Senior Research Fellow at Wadham and human rights barrister at Red Lion Chambers, hosted the discussion, introducing the discussion of the exploitation of young and vulnerable people in ‘County Lines’, when drug gangs from big cities expand their operations to smaller towns, often using violence to drive out local dealers.

Questions to the panel focussed on the economics of the drugs trade, growing interest from pharmaceutical companies, over-estimation of the harms of illicit substances and the resistance to changing drugs policies.

The Wadham Human Rights Forum is a continuing series of lectures, seminars and discussions hosted by the Wadham College Law Society and open to all.

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