Stop the War on Drugs

Major International Leaders Plead for the US and the World to Get Smart and Stop the War on Drugs

The Commission on Drug Policy urged a shift from incarceration to consideration of a full range of alternatives, from decriminalization to legalization and regulation.

June 4, 2011 | By Molly O'Toole

The Waldorf Astoria may be worlds away from the blood-spotted streets of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where the "drug war" has taken over 35,000 lives; the fiefdom-like favelas of Rio, Brazil, where even the police don't go; or Pakistan, one of the lowest-ranking on human development in the world, and neighbor to its largest opium producer. But members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy came to the famed New York hotel Friday to bring together leading thinkers and call for an end to the global "war on drugs," whose failed policies have claimed thousands of victims around the world over the last five decades.

The Commission on Drug Policy released a report Thursday outlining these failures and recommending reforms, among them a shift from criminalization to public health and from incarceration to consideration of a full range of alternatives, from decriminalization to legalization and regulation.

Despite the evidence, the political will and public support to transform drug policy remains anemic, as voiced by Ricken Patel, executive director at Avaaz, a global advocacy organization. He described his initial reaction to the drug policy commission at the New York press conference: "What have these people been smoking?"

But the commission's mandate is perhaps unprecedentedly deep and broad; the commissioners hail from 15 countries around the world, from North and Latin America, to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. They are four former presidents, United Nations dignitaries, authors and intellectuals, health and security officials, NGO directors and entrepreneurs.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil, chairs the commission that also boasts a Nobel laureate; Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel prize for literature this year. Kofi Annan is a personally impassioned member, due to regrets that he did not do more on drug policy in his former capacity as Secretary General of the UN, according to fellow member Richard Branson, entrepreneur, public advocate and the man who also said that within one year he'll be sending civilians into space. Asma Jahangir, former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Executions, is from Pakistan, and George Papandreou, one of the commission's only acting heads of state, is prime minister of the beleaguered country of Greece.

Public support for an end to the war on drugs shows signs of shifting as well. Patel presented Cardoso with a golf-check-like board, citing over 550,000 signatures of support from every country in the world for their campaign to overhaul global drug policy -- with an additional 1,500 added during the meeting itself, according to Patel. The commission delivered its report and the petition to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon today.

But the diversity of the panel at the Waldorf and the strong representation of two regions that have long led a continuing shift away from the "prohibitionist" policies of the world-wide war on drugs -- Latin America and Western Europe -- made the absence of the primary architect of these policies all the more glaring.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who hosted the event, noted several of the commission's absent members, describing honorary chair George Schultz as former secretary of "everything," to much laughter. John Whitehead, a banker and chair of the World Trade Center Memorial, is also a member, as is Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the U.S. Economic Recovery Board and the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Yet, thus far the country that created many of the drug policies that have since been exported and enforced around the globe has been resistant to the calls of the Commission. Fifty years ago, in 1961, the United Nations initiated the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan launched the U.S. government's "war on drugs" that continues to this day. The goal was a drug-free world, and the means to achieve it was fierce enforcement, a harsh crackdown on those involved in the production, distribution and consumption of drugs like heroin, cocaine and cannabis.

Instead, according to UN estimates, in the decade from 1998 to 2008, annual rates of consumption of drugs have rocketed up by 34.5 percent for opiates, 27 percent for cocaine and 8.5 percent for cannabis. As of 2008 estimates, there were more than 17 million opiates and cocaine users, and 160 million consumers of cannabis.

The global drug trade is valued at trillions of dollars (and not just from cocaine; the Mexican officials approximate that almost half of the cartels' billions of dollars of annual revenue come from marijuana). But attempts to eradicate it have cost the United States alone $1 trillion, not to mention thousands of lives. Within our borders, rates of incarceration, often for lesser offenses related to drugs, are the highest in the world, over Russia, China or Iran.

Additionally, the current size of the prison population -- more than 2.3 million -- is directly related to the war on drugs and overwhelmingly made up of people of color. These rates of incarceration have also led to levels of overcrowding that recently prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to order the state of California to release some 30,000 prisoners, after ruling that crowded conditions violated inmates' constitutional protections, and according to Justice Anthony Kennedy, also their "human dignity."

"I think the business community can try to educate governments into realizing that filling up prisons with millions of drug users costing the countries billions of dollars is not the best use of their money," said Branson, who uniquely represents business interests on the commission.

But Branson also describes the U.S. obligation to combat consumption as "enormous" because it is the biggest market for drugs. Internationally, the U.S. has given billions in aid to countries for the adoption of similar policies to the war on drugs within its own borders, with a majority going to its southern neighbor. "Every time somebody in the U.S. snorts cocaine, they're effectively contributing to the death of a Mexican," Branson said.

Colombia is often cited as a successful example of U.S. strategy. Ravaged by cartels and violence from the drug trade, the Colombian government adopted the U.S.-recommended Plan Colombia, and has been able to regain control; however, as former president César Gaviria pointed out in a sunny back room at the Waldorf, the broader drug war has not ended, but intensified.

According to the Economist, nearly all the world's cocaine is produced in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, and consumed in the U.S., where a kilo will start at $12,500, wholesale, though prices have also been pushed higher by pressure on Mexican drug trade routes. The main market route shifted from Colombia-Florida, across the Caribbean, to the Pacific Coast of Mexico, but pressure there is pushing the trade into other Central American countries. As commission members noted, payment in drugs rather than cash is also contributing to the first significant use inside these countries as well, and the disturbing development of a local trade. Gaviria added, "Mexico is making an extraordinary effort, and they should be helped on that, but at the same time I think they have the right to ask the U.S. to look at the policy and see if it's effective."

Many feel we are further from the ultimate objective of the 1961 UN Convention -- the improvement of the "health and welfare of mankind" -- than ever before. Frustration with these failures is feeding a growing movement for drug policy reform. Mexico is the latest Latin American country to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis, cocaine, heroin and other drugs in 2009 -- much to the chagrin of the United Nations international drug enforcement body, the International Narcotics Control Board. Argentina's Supreme Court has ruled that punishing the personal use of cannabis is unconstitutional.

Three former presidents and commission members -- Gaviria, Cardoso and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico -- have all argued that legalization would undermine the major source of income for cartels that still ravage the region, and that the prohibition of drugs fuels violence while not stopping consumption.

According to the commission's report, the starting point for effective policy must be "the recognition of the global drug problem as a set of interlinked health and social challenges to be managed, rather than a war to be won."

The report highlights several examples of countries that have successfully adopted this approach.


Countries that have enacted "harm reduction" strategies, which can include syringe access and medication, and public health initiatives -- like the UK, Switzerland, Germany and Australia -- have had lower rates of HIV transmission among people who inject drugs than in countries that have resisted such strategies, like Thailand and Russia. Switzerland, the UK and the Netherlands, which in the heyday of Reagan's war on drugs in the '80s had severe drug issues, chose instead to adopt a policy based on public health rather than criminalization -- and have seen results in decreased number of addicts, charges brought against drug users and crime.

In 2001, Portugal became the first European country to decriminalize the use and possession of all illicit drugs, and met much criticism by those who believed it would lead to even greater drug use and the problems associated with it. But subsequent studies have shown that removing criminality, but combining this strategy with therapy, has reduced the burden on law enforcement and overall levels of problematic drug use.

Similar criticisms continue to be voiced in the U.S., though interest in alternative policies has grown, as seen in a California ballot initiative last November. Studies have projected that both taxation and the money saved from ineffective enforcement would bring billions to state and federal governments.

But the California initiative did fail, and despite evidence of the failure of the war on drugs, the Obama administration has continued its policies, increasing spending on interdiction and enforcement to record levels in dollars and percentage, according to the Associated Press. In 2010, they accounted for $10 billion of Obama's $15.5 billion budget for drug control. Although the administration has emphasized a "public health" approach, a White House spokesman immediately dismissed the report and the recommendations of the commission. "Making drugs more available -- as this report suggests -- will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe," said Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Marion Caspers-Merk, former State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health, believes this disparity is a primary obstacle to mobilizing support for drug policy reform. "There is a lot of political pressure that a policy mix is something that will not be accepted by a society that figures of addicted people as criminals," she said. Yet even members of the commission recognized that the chances of a true transformation of international drug policy are slim without the support of one of the world's strongest policy players.

"These are busy people," said Thorvald Stoltenberg of the lack of US representation at the meeting and relatively speaking on the commission. Stoltenberg sat on the panel as a former minister of Foreign Affairs for Norway and UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "The success of this to a large extent depends on US policy."

Gaviria was pessimistic at the prospect of US support. "It is difficult to have a sense that the US will move in a change of language and change of policy if they don't have debate," Gaviria said. "It makes it very difficult to look for alternatives."

Gaviria, like several members of the commission, made the US present in his arguments for the need to end the war on drugs.

"The only approach to this problem of narcotrafficking is not prohibitionism ... there are a lot of things to do that can be more effective and at least less harmful for societies than what we have now," Gaviria said, but added, "We are trying to promote debate; we don't pretend we are going to change the world."