Discussing the need for evidence-based drug policy

Discussing the need for evidence-based drug policy
© iStock-Tinnakorn Jorruang

Science for Democracy co-founder and former Italian Senator Marco Perduca tells MCN about the need for evidence-based drug policy.

International platform Science for Democracy (SfD) is dedicated to promoting the essential right to science as a structural element of liberal democracies through public advocacy, rights watching and citizen engagement campaigns. A key component of SfD’s policy manifesto is its support for the freedom of research into controlled substances, in the name of evidence-based drug policy and the fundamental assertion of human rights.

Co-founder Marco Perduca, a former Italian Senator, tells MCN about SfD’s campaigns and the failures of drug prohibition in Europe.

What inspired the formation of Science for Democracy? What are your key aims?

‘Science for Democracy’ was the title of the fifth session of the World Congress on Freedom of Scientific Research which the Luca Coscioni Association, the group that in 2015 dedicated an entire meeting to the promotion of the ‘right to science’, organised at the European Parliament in April 2018. The success of that event suggested the creation of an ad hoc international platform called Science for Democracy to concentrate on the human rights implications of science. SfD was formally launched in October of 2018, and is dedicated to the promotion of evidence-based public debates to influence decision-making processes concerning freedom of research, the sharing of knowledge and the right to enjoy the benefits of science and its applications all over the world.

What is the impact of strict drug control and prohibition policies on the progress of scientific research?

Unfortunately, the impact is huge. The fact that medicinal plants and their derivatives, as well as other chemical compounds, have been put under a very strict international control to avoid their diversion to non-scientific or therapeutic uses has created a mastodonic bureaucratic regime that has progressively discouraged research. At the same time, since the early 1970s, the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has criminalised not only narcotics but also non-violent activities. People who used drugs were always presented as ‘addicts’ and treated as public health enemy number one.

To corroborate those policies, governments have heavily invested in studies to demonstrate the harm caused by drugs without taking into consideration the mission of the UN Conventions on psychotropic substances, which were adopted in 1961 to actually promote the availability of drugs for medical and scientific reasons. Prohibition has incarcerated millions of people the world over and scared brilliant scientists for generations; its impact has been, and continues to be, big.

How can increased research and innovation around medical cannabis benefit patients and producers?

It is of the utmost importance to carry out serious and sound research before making claims about the benefits of cannabis, in order not to generate hopes that cannot be met with therapeutic responses or innovative approaches. At the same time, key researchers – as well as the institutes or companies they work for or with – should invest more in awareness-raising campaigns using all the evidence available in the simplest and most convincing way.

At the same time, research and presentations on innovation may not be enough to persuade decision-makers to change laws and policies: whenever possible, patients and their stories should also be included in the communication of new studies and clinical trials. This last involvement has proven crucial to the process of legalising medical cannabis almost everywhere it has been implemented.

There have been an increasing number of calls for the EU to implement a harmonised standard of regulation on cannabis across all Member States: how could the clinical and academic applications of cannabis benefit from a more standardised international approach?

The more EU Member States harmonise their rules and policies, the more they will fulfil their international obligations vis-à-vis the right to health and science (both articulated in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights) and respect the human rights of the people that live in Europe.

The EU should fund research, which could be done in co-ordinated collaboration by networks of universities or private sector bodies, and then take care of pooling as many clinical trials as possible in order to assist those who want to introduce new products into the market along the way. Such a proactive approach would speed up the preparation of the necessary European authorisation. Co-ordinating does not mean centralising; promoting the sharing of information, data and experiences can certainly benefit research and assist in the consequential necessary modification of contentious regulations and national policies.

Should drug policy be more rooted in evidence? How could this be implemented?

Decision-makers should be fed as much evidence as possible to evaluate the pros and cons and the various options presented by research and innovation. Then it will be up to them to make the final decision, but not without having studied the subject from a scientific point of view. I am not sure politics is a science, but I am sure that if the process to adopt a law would resemble the so-called scientific method, we would be confronted with norms and policies that would make more practical sense, rather than the catalogue of arbitrary ideological approaches that still characterises them. While I see it is difficult to establish institutional mechanisms that mandate the need to acquire data and figures before legislating, there is no doubt that if governments would respect their international obligations, regulations would be much better.

Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights clearly codifies what we call the ‘right to science’: in April 2020 a Committee of UN experts adopted a ‘General Comment on Science’ which will assist governments to better understand their international obligations stemming from Article 15. Included among these obligations is the need to adopt laws based on the best available evidence. At the same time the General Comments states, using cannabis as an example, that research has continued and now demonstrates the beneficial effects of something that some 60 years ago was considered dangerous; countries should therefore modify their rules not to block both the right to carry out research and the one to make therapies available to all.

Last, but certainly not least, the General Comment addresses the ‘precautionary principle’ which – because science continues to offer evidence of negative outcomes but also of promising options of a given subject – cannot be imposed forever without an evaluation from time to time of the reasons why it was imposed. If countries, or international institutions, decide not to respect this aspect of international human rights, then it will be up to citizens or civil society organisations to activate the existing international jurisdictions (or quasi-jurisdictions) to bring the matter all the way up to the UN. This is what Science for Democracy is trying to explore at the moment. Prohibition of narcotics is the perfect case study of a widespread and systematic violation of these international obligations that would bind countries to protect and promote the rights to health and science.

Marco Perduca
Science for Democracy

This article is for issue 4 of Medical Cannabis Network. Click here to get your free subscription today.

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