'War on drugs means millions are needlessly dying in pain'

Story highlights

  • Restrictions on controlled medicines are causing needless suffering globally, argue three experts
  • Fear of recreational drug use limits access to opiates, they say
  • U.N. drug control conventions require states to provide these treatments to all who require them

Ruth Dreifuss is former President of Switzerland and Minister of Home Affairs. Anand Grover is former U.N. special rapporteur on the Right to Health, India. Michel Kazatchkine is former executive director of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

(CNN)Millions of people are dying in pain because of the repressive stance the world has taken on drugs. That's because states are obsessed by the fear that people will use controlled medicines such as morphine as recreational drugs, thereby neglecting their important medical uses.

Where you live determines whether you will be able to access to controlled medicines, particularly opiates, when confronting an acute terminal, chronic or painful illness. Ninety-two per cent of the world's morphine is consumed by only 17% of the world's population, primarily the United States and Europe. Seventy--five percent of the world's people in need do not have access to pain relieving medicine.
    In other words, most of the global population, outside the affluent countries in the North, dying in pain, including from terminal cancers, do so in the absence of dignified palliative care.
    Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland.
    This is a horrendous situation for millions of patients and families. Essential medicines such as morphine, taken for granted as the standard relief of severe pain in the global North, do not enjoy the same status in the global South. Quite the opposite. Chances are, if a person living in any developing country ends up with an illness associated with extreme and avoidable pain, they will endure the pain simply because their government has created obstacles to morphine use in hospitals.
    Because of unfounded fears of addiction, doctors are hesitant to prescribe these pain relieving drugs. Additionally, people who inject drugs are often denied access to controlled medicines to treat opioid dependence, including methadone and buprenorphine.
    This is unacceptable but what is more, this global crisis of pain is avoidable.

    'The international drug control system is broken'

    The Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) sees the problem of access to controlled medicines as a critical global issue and finds that restrictions and conditions to avoid these medicines being used for illicit purposes by international drug control bodies and national governments has caused millions of people to needlessly suffer. Because of the stigma associated with certain controlled medicines, particularly opiates, it is more difficult for health systems, doctors and hospitals to access these medicines for their patients.
     Michel Kazatchkine,  former executive director of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.