Drug use keeps going up, and new drugs with psychoactive effects are being developed faster than states can regulate them. Illicit opium product has skyrocketed. Prices for heroin are falling. These outcomes set against the sheer cost of the so-called War on Drugs have convinced many that current tactics have failed.
And an international commission that includes 8 former heads of state and other world leaders is declaring this week that even decriminalization isn’t enough.
“Ultimately, the global drug control regime must be reformed to permit legal regulation,” said former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. “Let’s start by treating drug addiction as a health issue – rather than as a crime – and by reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives. But let’s also allow and encourage countries to carefully test models of responsible legal regulation as a means to undermine the power of organized crime, which thrives on illicit drug trafficking.”
The Commission, which includes former President of Colombia César Gaviria, former President of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, and former U.S. Secretary of State John Whitehead, calls for a spectrum of reforms that move away from criminalization, in a detailed proposal that lays out perhaps the most comprehensive picture yet of what War on Drugs alternatives could look like for all drugs, and in every country.
Removing criminal penalties for drug possession and use, known as decriminalization, is an “absolute prerequisite for any health-based approach” given that criminalization is “a policy of harm maximization” and only exacerbates drug-related problems, the commission concludes. But legal experiments are also necessary to “address the harm associated with illicit drug markets.”
“The continued expansion of the illicit trade despite growing enforcement efforts aimed at curtailing it demonstrates the futility of repressive prohibitions,” the Commission explains. “Therefore … in the longer term, drug markets should be responsibly regulated by government authorities. Without legal regulation, control, and enforcement, the drug trade will remain in the hands of organized criminals. Ultimately this is a choice between control in the hands of governments or gangsters; there is no third option in which drug markets can be made to disappear.”
In the drug war, the barometers of success are measures like hectares of illicit crops eradicated, number of arrests and prosecutions, and amount of drugs seized. But they haven’t reached the goal of a safer society. Even the most lofty of War on Drug outcomes like capturing major cartel leaders have adverse consequences by simply creating a power void that begets more violence. Instead, the report calls for outcomes measured by number of fatal overdoses, rate of HIV/AIDS transmission via needles, rates of violent crime, and the power of criminal organizations.
Not all legalization regimes look the same. While a tax and regulate system like that recently instituted in Washington and Colorado may be a good model for some drugs like marijuana, other drugs can be regulated under different regimes. For the most potent drugs like injectable heroin, it may mean prescriptions at registered clinics for particular addicted individuals who have failed at other programs. Switzerland has this program in place, alongside safe injection sites and alternative methadone clinics for those who may have more success in fighting addiction.
In many instances, illicit sales “encourage the product and supply of more potent — and therefore more profitable — drug preparations.” It provides as an example cocaine products. In many countries, smokeable cocaine products are more widely available than “less potent, safer preparations like coca leaf and other coca-based products. Effective regulation could help gradually reverse this dynamic.”
Legalization is “not as radical as many believe,” the Commission argues. “The regulation and management of risky products and behaviors is a key function of all government authorities around the world, and is the norm in almost all other areas of policy and law. Governments regulate everything from alcohol and cigarette consumption to medicines, seatbelts, the use of fireworks, powertools and high-risk sports. If the potential risks of drugs are to be contained and minimized, governments must apply the same regulatory logic to the development of effective drug policies.”
The Commission makes its comprehensive argument three years after it first formed to “break the taboo” in opposing the War on Drugs. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has been at the forefront of this movement, and he said last year that the Commission endorsed experiments with legalization. The Commission is aspiring to reach the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016, during which international leaders could talk about amending or re-interpreting international drug treaties that many have interpreted as a restraint on experiments with legalization.
The Commission points to the United States for several positive examples, including emerging state marijuana laws and “Good Samaritan” laws that exempt individuals who call 911 for overdose help from criminal punishment. But it also rejects drug courts that sentence individuals to mandatory treatment rather than jail as “conceptually flaws and insufficient” because they still exist within the “failed criminal justice paradigm.” And in many states and at the federal level, drug laws remain as harsh as ever.
Sitting presidents in Latin American countries most demolished by the War on Drugs, including Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, have said they were open to legalization. And Uruguay became the first country to legalize the sale, production and distribution of marijuana with the wholehearted backing of that country’s president.