Report: The Global War on Drugs Has Failed. Is It Time to Legalize?

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Brendan McDermid / Reuters

The global war against drugs is fought seemingly every day in the jungles of Colombia and the mountains of the Hindu Kush, the inner cities of the U.S. and the trafficking corridors of Central America. But, according to a new report, it’s an abject disaster.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy, an organization launched by former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico (and whose accomplished 19-member board includes former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Pakistani feminist activist Asma Jehangir, and, yes, Sir Richard Branson), declared today that the “global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” Four decades ago, policy makers imagined creating a drug free world through “harsh law enforcement action” that cracked down on drug production and distribution. But the resulting “vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers” have only led to an expansion of the trade, higher rates of drug consumption, and has created — as seen in places like Mexico or Afghanistan — deadly, volatile new arenas for an illicit industry to sow mayhem.

The report outlines some of the unintended consequences of a near half century of global anti-drug policies. A few:

  • The growth of a ‘huge criminal black market’, financed by the risk-escalated profits of supplying international demand for illicit drugs.
  • Geographical displacement, often known as ‘the balloon effect’, whereby drug production shifts location to avoid the attentions of law enforcement.
  • The perception and treatment of drug users, who are  stigmatized, marginalized and excluded.

The commission advocates decriminalizing drug use by those who do no harm to others. Countries that have adopted measures that treat drug users as patients — and not criminals — have, for example, drastically lower rates of HIV-positive needle-users. The public health consequences for decades of ineffective policies are stark and can’t be ignored. Governments, the report says, need to stop fretting over false dichotomies of “tough or soft, repressive or liberal” policies and think up a flexible approach that both minimizes “health and social harms” and maximizes “individual and national security.” A vital cog of this is decriminalizing and perhaps even legalizing certain drugs, particularly cannabis, and taxing their production and sale.

Of course, this progressive agenda is voiced often, but rarely has an institution with such pedigree and seriousness articulated this sort of a vision for drug law reform. Nor is it soft on law enforcement:

Focus repressive actions on violent criminal organizations, but do so in ways that undermine their power and reach while prioritizing the reduction of violence and intimidation. Law enforcement efforts should focus not on reducing drug markets per se but rather on reducing their harms to individuals, communities and national security.

Again, the point here is a question of emphasis. Fighting gangs and cartels whose capabilities span continents requires a subtlety not evinced by most governments. Ruthless crackdowns have not worked, only leading drug producing and smuggling outfits to find more subterranean means of operation, which create greater dangers for those who inevitably seek their product.

On a certain level, this all seems painfully obvious. But the report lashes out at a “lack of leadership” at the highest level of governments around the world, where drug policies are still dictated by “ideology and political convenience” rather than “strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights.” The first task, says the commission, is to “break the taboo” that seems to encircle real discussion of mass-scale drug legalization and decriminalization. Judging from the initial White House response, though, that plea may go unheeded.