A new report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy excoriated traditional approaches to reducing drug abuse, saying, “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” The commission, which includes such world leaders as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, recommended that governments begin to consider the legalization of some drugs and the end of criminalization for drug users.
The report’s authors wrote that despite “harsh law enforcement action against those involved in drug production, distribution and use” over the past forty years, that “in practice, the global scale of illegal drug markets — largely controlled by organized crime — has grown dramatically.” According to the UN, “opiate use increased by 35% worldwide from 1998 to 2008, cocaine by 27%, and cannabis by 8.5%. This, they said, means that it’s time for a strong change in policy. They were especially critical of the U.S., saying that they need to tackle drug abuse by treating users as addicts or patients, not as criminals.
Among its suggestions, the report recommended that governments experiment “with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens. This recommendation applies especially to cannabis.” It also urged lawmakers to see drug users themselves as victims of violence intimidation, saying that “arresting and incarcerating tens of millions of these people in recent decades has filled prisons and destroyed lives and families without reducing the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations.”
One of the most important messages, for me, was the report’s claim that governments should move away from “simplistic” zero-tolerance and “just say no” policies, and instead provide education that is grounded in the realities of social life and peer pressure. When I was growing up, attending public schools in central Virginia, I briefly believed that marijuana and heroin had mostly the same effects – and that they were both effectively deadly. Although I was lucky enough to have parents who explained that the drugs are markedly different, the detrimental effects of such policies are obvious.
The report was dismissed, however, by U.S. and Mexican officials. In a statement, a spokesman for the U.S. drug czar said, “Drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated. Making drugs more available — as this report suggests — will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe.”
And a Mexican National Security spokesman said that “legalisation won’t stop organised crime, nor its rivalries and violence.”
But it’s clear that what governments — especially the U.S. government — is doing to curb drug use isn’t working. And if such experienced world leaders are recommending these dramatic changes in policy, current leaders probably shouldn’t be rejecting them out of hand.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.