Withdrawing from the War on Drugs

GENEVA –Switzerland’s direct democracy allows citizens who have gathered enough petition signatures to challenge government policies and laws in nationwide referenda. After a spate of AIDS deaths during the 1980’s, the Swiss came face to face with a problem that has destroyed millions of lives in the United States, Russia, Latin America, the European Union, southern Asia, and other regions. Intravenous drug users – especially heroin addicts – had turned public spaces in Zurich and other Swiss cities and towns into needle parks. AIDS proved itself to be blind to affluence.

The Swiss did not respond with the kind of neglect that Russia’s government has shown so far toward its heroin and HIV epidemics – more than two million drug users and an estimated one million people living with HIV, over 60% of them infected while sharing contaminated needles. Nor did the Swiss react with a “war on drugs” and massive funding for more policing, more jails, and mandatory prison sentences.

That war is well and truly lost. The US now incarcerates more people than any other country, largely as a result of soaring drug convictions, with a disproportionate number of African-American and Hispanic prisoners. The war on drugs has enabled drug cartels to reap higher profits than ever and transform entire communities in Latin America into fiefdoms. Drug money is corrupting democratic governments and law-enforcement institutions around the world. Drug-related violence has consumed untold numbers of victims in Afghanistan, Burma, Colombia, the US, and Mexico.

The Swiss re-examined their government’s drug policies with a pragmatic eye. Health professionals took the lead in a campaign to press the government – through the mechanisms of direct democracy – to shift its focus from arresting and punishing drug users toward public-health policies that are based on scientific evidence of what works.