A top-level international panel says that global drug-control policies should make a major shift from prohibition to decriminalization and regulation.
In a 43-page report released mid-September, the Global Commission on Drug Policy denounced what has been known for more than four decades as the “war against drugs” as a failure. The report, “Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies That Work,” argued that new approaches prioritizing human rights and health were urgently needed.
“In this report, we set out a broad roadmap for getting drugs under control,” wrote former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who chairs the commission. “We recognize that past approaches premised on a punitive law enforcement paradigm have failed, emphatically so.”
He added, “The Global Commission on Drug Policy instead advocates for an approach to drug policy that puts public health, community safety, human rights, and development at the center.”
Such an approach would, among other changes, encourage governments to regulate markets in currently illicit drugs, beginning with marijuana, coca leaf and certain psychoactive drugs; seek alternatives to prison for low-level, nonviolent participants in the drug trade; and ensure equitable access to essential medicines, especially opiate-based pain medications, according to the report.
The report’s recommendations drew a mixed response from the U.S. federal government, which has largely driven international drug policy since former President Richard Nixon first declared a war on drugs in 1971.
“We agree that we should use sciencebased approaches, rely on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders and ensure access to pain medications,” said Cameron Hardesty, of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
But Hardesty disagreed that drug legalization would make people healthier and communities safer. “Our experience with the tobacco and alcohol industries show[s] that commercialization efforts rely upon increasing, not decreasing use, which in turn increases the harm associated with the use of tobacco and alcohol. In fact, if we take Big Tobacco as prologue, we can predict that that approach is likely to cause an entirely new set of problems,” she said.
Nonetheless, independent analysts said the commission’s recommendations are likely to substantially advance the growing debate over drug policy because its membership is not easily dismissed.
In addition to Cardoso from Brazil, its 21 members include former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, as well as former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Paul Volcker.
In 2011, the commission published its first report in which it also condemned the drug war as a failure and made a series of recommendations designed to “break the taboo” against considering legalization and regulation of some drugs as alternatives.
In mid-2013, the Organization of American States also released a report commissioned by the region’s heads of states that included legalization as a policy alternative and that strongly favored the view that drugs should be seen increasingly as a public health, rather than a security, issue.
Among other measures, it proposed legalizing and regulating marijuana production, distribution and sales — a recommendation that has since been adopted by voters in Colorado and Washington. Nearly half of all U.S. states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes, and 17 states have decriminalized personal possession. As prices drop for drugs that have become purer with each passing year, governments have been spending an estimated $100 billion annually on enforcement measures. The U.N. has estimated the value of global illicit drug trade at over $350 billion.
The commission’s report offered a number of general recommendations, beginning with a call for a “fundamental re-orientation of policy priorities” that would replace traditional goals and measures — such as amounts of drugs seized, and the number of people arrested, prosecuted and convicted for drug law violations — with “far more important” benchmarks. These include reducing drug-related occurences such as fatal overdoses, hiv infections, crime, violence, human rights abuses, and the power of criminal organizations that profit from the drug trade.
It noted that militarized “crackdowns” may actually increase criminal violence and public insecurity without deterring drug production, trafficking or consumption.
“There’s no question now that the genie of reform has escaped the prohibitionist bottle,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the veteran director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “The former presidents and other commission members pull no punches in insisting that national and global drug control policies reject the failed prohibitionist policies of the 20th century in favor of new policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.”