The global war on drugs has yet to deliver on its promise of a drug-free world, but governments are attempting to alleviate the effects of drugs by developing policies that address trafficking, justice and prison systems, and health care. Jan Malinowski is executive secretary of the Council of Europe’s drug policy platform known as the “Pompidou Group” or Co-operation Group to Combat Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in Drugs. The group is dedicated to providing new approaches to drug policies that incorporate concerns for human rights and public health. In an interview with World Policy Journal Editor Emeritus David A. Andelman, Malinowski discusses the efficacy of policies across Europe, Russia, and the U.S. and how to enact more humane policy alternatives.
DAVID A. ANDELMAN: Your brief is the trafficking of illegal drugs, which causes at least 400,000 deaths worldwide each year. Is the most effective means of controlling them from the consumption or the production end, in your view?
JAN MALINOWSKI: According to the U.N. agencies, around 1 percent of the world’s population has serious drug problems, and about 7 percent use drugs occasionally, which gives an indication of the magnitude of the problem. Suppliers strive to meet the strong demand, so the answer to your question is that both are important. The so-called war on drugs has made many broken promises. The latest big promise was a drug-free world—that was agreed in 1998, and repeated in 2008.
DA: Who agreed to that?
JM: That was the U.N. collectively. The U.N. member states together said that they would strive for a drug-free world, and what we have seen is that all efforts have been useless. There’s a lot of collateral damage and little progress. There has been an increase in trafficking and an increase in violence without significant impact on the use of drugs. The policies that address the drug problem from a public health perspective have tended to deliver a good result—that decriminalization of use and possession for own use from the consumption side, for example, does not create more problems, it reduces the problems both in terms of health and in terms of drug-related criminality.
DA: Doesn’t that frustrate you enormously? You’ve been working on this for sometime; it’s almost like preventing the tide from coming in with a shovel, right?
JM: That’s right, but what happens with drugs is what I describe as a sort of half-inflated balloon. If you squeeze it bulges somewhere else, and you can squeeze it again and it will find the place to bulge elsewhere. It happens with respect to transport routes. If you manage to block one route it appears somewhere else. If you control sea transport, it goes through land or air. It is happening with respect to distribution; when the drug traffickers and drug pushers are detained they are very often replaced by more violent ones, so the problem is very often increased. When you control, when you stop production in a particular place in the world, production appears elsewhere. It also happens with respect to the products. If you squeeze one out, another replaces it.
DA: Let’s look at some of the means or attempts at controlling them. Some countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and others have imposed the death penalty with some impunity on drug trafficking. Has that been effective?
JM: The death penalty has never been effective. People who are engaging in crime are not considering the consequences, they are trying to not get caught—they don’t think about what is going to happen if they do get caught. It has been repeatedly researched and proven that the death penalty does not have an effect on criminal activity, and you can see that in Europe where we have within the Council of Europe a membership of 47 states without the death penalty. It hasn’t provoked an increased level of criminality. Quite to the contrary, the countries with better criminal justice systems that deliver less harsh punishments tend to have less criminality and less violent crime. Violence is a vicious circle—disrespect for human life generates disrespect for human life. When it is the state that applies that principle, not for preserving life but for taking it, the message sent to society it is that it may be okay to engage in that kind of violent activity in certain circumstances.
DA: None of these countries [with the death penalty] are members of the Council of Europe, but do you consider that your brief nevertheless could extend to these countries? If so, how can you persuade them?
JM: The worry is that human rights, though universal, are not respected equally across the world and that people are being killed elsewhere is a matter of concern for us everywhere in the world. The other aspect is that in terms of controlling the supply of drugs, it cannot happen without cooperation. When some countries are executing people, as is the case in the Philippines now with extrajudicial vigilante killings, cooperation is hindered because a country that’s respectful of human rights cannot afford to offer its assistance to another country if the result may be that it will violate human rights as a result of that cooperation.
Here in Europe, the European Court of Human Rights looks at that closely, and has a say when people, for example, are going to be sent to a country where they run the risk of being executed or tortured. The actions that are taken in one country that can have a consequence of violations of human rights in another country are relevant.
DA: That sounds very sensible. What means might be more effective in those countries if they were to abolish the death penalty?
JM: With respect to criminal activity it’s about using other means that are respectful of human rights: due process and the rule of law. Other means work in Europe and in America—while they don’t stop criminal activity altogether, neither does the death penalty. We have to press on those countries, and we have to try to influence them through dialogues and international organizations in order to persuade them to stop.
Recently, Amnesty International commented that when they engaged their action against the death penalty in the 70s there were 17 countries in the world that had abolished the death penalty, and now there are 140. So, that shows the world hasn’t become a paradise for criminals and that the death penalty can be abolished without playing into their hands. That is the sort of the message these countries need to hear, and they need to hear that other countries in the world cannot cooperate with them if that could lead to the handing down of death penalties.
DA: Two questions suggest themselves from that response. First, have you spoken with the leaders in those countries? Second, have you provided any incentives, for instance that the Council of Europe might be prepared to underwrite drug suppression activity and that sort of thing, if the death penalty were abolished in those countries?
JM: Not as such because we are working with a more reduced number of countries. We would be open to cooperating more broadly but at present the Pompidou Group, which is the organization that I assist from the secretariat, has 38 member states of which two are non-European: Israel and Morocco. We also have cooperation with countries in the southern Mediterranean and with a number of countries that are not European, but who are prepared to work with us and to receive our assistance in order to improve their drug policies.
DA: So they get some subsidies from the Council of Europe, is that correct?
JM: No subsidies as such, but we share knowledge and dialogue. We also have law enforcement cooperation which means that law enforcement officials can learn from each other. They can establish contacts so they know whom to contact in case there is trafficking across borders, etc. Sometimes we have participants from other parts of the world in our law enforcement activities: from the U.S., from Australia, from New Zealand, and so on.
DA: Do you have any sense, because you mentioned movement of people from parts of Europe to the rest of the world, that the vast number of refugees that are coming in might be used by the cartels as a new means of transport into Europe? Are you concerned about that possibility?
JM: Not necessarily. In terms of moving drugs across borders that concern would be relatively small because trafficking organizations need to be able to move big quantities. There is a potential impact in the longer term but not because of a risk for trafficking. The concern is that people have very often suffered trauma and duress to an extent that if they’re not treated they may be more likely to end up using drugs. And because of the use of drugs and the consequences that has in today’s society, if the issue is not responded to in terms of public health they may end up in a criminal circuit. So that is a risk, but it is not an immediate problem. That’s something that needs to be managed looking to the future.
DA: You mentioned at one point in a piece you wrote that in terms of drug-related deaths Portugal is at the low end and that at the high end is Estonia, where the death rate is 40 times higher. In Estonia drugs are largely decriminalized, so does this suggest that decriminalization, as a solution, just doesn’t work?
JM: Portugal has decriminalized the use of drugs and the possession of small quantities for own consumption. In fact, the countries that have decriminalized use and possession for own consumption have seen the number of drug deaths fall. There are several examples of either a clear-cut decriminalization of use and possession or a de facto trend toward that, and the countries that are on that end of the scale have a relatively low number of deaths related to drugs: Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and so on. The ones that are harsher on drug use see increases in terms of the number of drug-related deaths—the Scandinavian countries, for example. Estonia is a curious example where they have good policies in place based on public health but they seem not to fully apply them, which is why they may have a high level of drug-related deaths. They are also close to Russia and that means there may be synthetic heroin—fentanyl—that is very dangerous because it’s very difficult to dose and consequently people can overdose very easily.
Russia declares around 700 drug related deaths per million inhabitants per year. There, use and possession is harshly punished and public health considerations seem to come second to the principal of abstinence. Users are punished and are lead to detoxification, but harm reduction strategies are not in place, and heavy users are not given medication-assisted treatment, or what we call “substitution treatment.” There may well be a correlation between those policy choices and drug deaths.
In the U.S., there are places where the death rate is very high as well, or it has been in the past. Now, policies are changing toward a more sensitive approach that incorporates public health concerns and the health approach to responding to drugs. I have the impression that it’s delivering good results where it’s being applied more intensely. There are places in the U.S. that were reported to have relatively high death rates of 300-350 per million inhabitants per year, so considerably higher than the lower end of what we have in Europe.
DA: Let’s go back to Russia for just a moment. Do you have a sense that Russia is being used as a transit point for drugs from places like Afghanistan? And is the interest in preventing the use of Russia as a transit point only as long as the drugs are not sold widely in Russia itself to Russians?
JM: All countries have an interest in not becoming a transit point. What we’ve seen in other parts of the world, in Latin America for example, is that transit has shifted from one country to another in response to difficulties. We have seen how the presence of drugs can affect the sustainability of the state itself and state institutions. Drugs are very powerful, and there’s a lot of money involved, which can corrupt a society. We’ve seen that kind of phenomenon in some countries in central Africa as well. When a country becomes a transit point it is very dangerous and we should all be concerned because significant drug trafficking can compromise the sustainability of democratic institutions in a country, wherever it happens.
DA: Do you see Russia as a transit country?
JM: It is both a transit country and a consuming country. That happens in other places where drugs transit and remain. When you see the statistics of the number of drug-related deaths, it is clear that there is a considerable amount of drug use. Because of its geographic position it is also a transit country, but many other countries are also part of a transit route because of their geographic location. Spain has traditionally been a place where cocaine has transited into Europe, and cannabis as well from North Africa. Some of the big European ports are where much of the drugs come into Europe, like Rotterdam. There was a seizure a few months ago in the North Sea that had a street value of half a billion pounds. These are things that big criminal organizations can afford to lose because they will replace them. They just continue producing and conveying large amounts of drugs through whatever point of entry and country of transit they can. Organized crime can adapt quickly. If you squeeze out one route, they will use another one.
DA: You also wrote that the drug death toll worldwide is something like 10 times that of terrorism. Clearly the war on terror is at the top of international priorities on both sides of the Atlantic and across the Middle East and Africa, so how can the war on drugs take on that same kind of urgency?
JM: I think that terrorism is very visible because of its very nature. The terrorists try to create this feeling of fear in the population and because of that it’s clear there has to be a reaction. Terrorism is a criminal activity and there has to be an intense reaction on the part of the state. I mention it because in terms of the number of deaths, drug related deaths are so high that it merits attention itself, especially to the extent that many of those deaths are preventable. These deaths can be prevented through different policies: through health care and through support to the drug user rather than punishment, for example. It is something that we should be mindful of and we should be taking care of. We are not talking about an occasional or one-off event. We see that there is a link between the policy responses and the number of deaths, so there’s a duty in human rights terms to seek to apply policy responses that will minimize the impact on the enjoyment of human rights: the right to life, the right to human dignity, and so on.
DA: Could you tell us a few of the countries that you think have been most effective in combating the drug epidemic, and which countries have been least effective?
JM: Drugs continue to be used because there is a demand, and also because people would want to use drugs regardless of its criminal or non-criminal status—that’s the bottom line. So it is about minimizing the effects of drugs and maximizing the ability to keep people, as much as possible, safe. From that perspective there are some very good examples. We’ve been talking about Portugal. In Portugal, it’s not only about the decriminalization of use and the possession of small quantities. It is also about the social services in order to support people who have fallen into the circuit of drugs. It’s also about making sure they have safe housing in order for them to gain employment, so people can be brought out of the area of marginality that drugs very often take people to.
DA: Can that be effectively scaled up to larger counties like Spain, France, or Germany?
JM: Certainly. Spain adopted a very similar approach to Portugal and they have had very comparable results. The death toll is a bit higher but in other respects it has been quite effective. It is interesting to see, for example, that Spain has been claiming for some time that the drug-related transmissions of HIV among drug-using prisoners in the prison system have gone down to zero. This is because of harm reduction measures that they have applied over many years. They introduced measures to teach drug users how to use drugs safely and how to disinfect the syringes. Then, they introduced various treatment programs, but they also introduced syringe exchange programs so now people are using drugs safely in prisons. Prisons are part of society and drugs find their way in. If the prison service tries to manage itself in a humane way it cannot be so rigid as to prevent any contact with the outside world, and so drugs will enter the prison system. And when you have that kind of situation it is a clear result of the policy choices that have been made. More recently I read that Switzerland has reduced to zero the HIV transmission among drug injecting people in the country as a whole, so that is a massive achievement in terms of the result of policies. Why were they able to accomplish this? They were able to because people are supported, because people receive clean syringes in needle exchanges, and because there is awareness as the result of education. Switzerland is a small country and Spain is a bigger one, and it has still been effective there as well.
Germany is country that has had well-developed drug policies for some time with positive results. What we can’t do is reverse history. We cannot go back in history and say the policies that we have applied for the last 50 years aren’t applied anymore. What we need is to build from the current situation to try to minimize the adverse impact of drugs on communities, society, and people. This approach requires that we take into account the community, the situation in the country, and the type of drugs that are being used widely.
For example, in an economic downtown drug use increases, whereas in a situation of economic wellbeing drug use decreases. This has been observed over time so the response has to be different according to different circumstances. It is not the same drug use in the world of finance, where it is often about performance enhancing, compared to heroin used by people who are homeless, for example. The response to these circumstances has to be different.
DA: I want to come back to something you were talking about at the beginning: the death penalty. There’s talk about restoring the death penalty in Turkey, which is one of the earliest members of the Council of Europe. If Turkey were to proceed down that path, would that decision lead to its expulsion?
JM: Abolition is one of the major exigencies that the Council of Europe has imposed on members over the last 20 years or so. Right to life is one of the rights that cannot be derogated from as a result of a state of emergency, so my response is that I would be confident that they wouldn’t go that way. Turkey formally abolished the death penalty back in 2002. It had already been subject to a moratorium since, I think, 1984. So while there may be some talk there in the aftermath of the failed coup, I don’t think that Turkey will reverse its own history in respect to human rights.
The European Court of Human Rights has had a long evolution considering cases of potential death penalties in other countries, and it has reached the conclusion that the death penalty is not permissible within the framework of the European Convention of Human Rights. Even the threat of a potential death penalty or execution would be a violation of the prohibition of torture or humiliating or degrading treatment or punishment.
DA: In a sense you’ve answered my last question, which is that human rights in general must lead the way to public health concerns if the drug wars are to be won.
JM: I think so. A legal and a human rights framework with respect to drug policy would certainly give considerable weight to the health dimension and to public health considerations. That is something that the Pompidou Group and the Council of Europe are considering and it is, I would say, the current trend in the reflection and there is work under way.
There hasn’t been sufficient case law at an international level to be able to interpret what the human rights dimension of drug policy is in precise terms, but things are moving and the discussion is ongoing. In April there was a U.N. General Assembly special session on the world drug problem where member states consistently advocated for human rights and the health dimension. I think that we are seeing a change in drug policy. There has been a lot of criticism of the war on drugs and its failings, so a reasonable policymaker has to take stock of the fact that policies have not worked and should move forward on the basis of the scientific evidence and human rights considerations. They need improving results that have not been achieved in the past, so certainly the climate exists to move forward and incorporate the human rights and health dimensions very strongly into drug policy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Photo courtesy of WerbeFabrik]