Failed: The War on Drugs and a Milestone Critique

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Failed: The War on Drugs and a Milestone Critique

Bernd Debusmann

The war on drugs President Richard Nixon launched 40 years ago has failed.

The war on drugs is a waste of time, money and lives. It cannot be won. The world’s drug warriors are out of ideas.

Fresh thinking is of the essence. Governments should consider legalizing drugs to take profits out of the criminal trade.

Filling prisons with drug users does nothing to curb the billion-dollar illicit business, one of the world’s richest. Drug use is a public health problem, not a crime. Arresting small-time dealers does little but create a market opportunity for other small fry. Destroy drug crops in one region and cultivation moves to another. Cut a supply route in one place and another one opens up.

By one group or another, each of the above points has been made about long-running drug policies that bring to mind Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

But never before has such criticism come from an international panel of establishment figures with such high profiles as the Global Commission on Drug Policy which presented a devastating assessment of the drug war in New York on June 2. Its 19 members include former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, three former Latin American presidents (of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia), former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, Richard Branson, the flamboyant billionaire chairman of the Virgin group, and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou.

Other commission members of impeccable mainstream respectability: George Shultz, U.S. Secretary of State during the Reagan administration; Louise Arbour, a former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and now president of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank; former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss; Javier Solana, former European Union foreign affairs chief; Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel literature laureate, and Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes.

Whether their report will bring about change remains to be seen but it looks like a milestone on a long road toward reforms that some see as inevitable. “Today is the day when we start to end the war on drugs,” Branson said at the commission’s New York news conference.

The commission’s report does not mince words: “The global war on drugs has failed. When the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs came into being 50 years ago and when President (Richard) Nixon launched the U.S. government’s war on drugs 40 years ago, policymakers believed that harsh law enforcement action against those involved in drug production, distribution and use would lead to an ever-diminishing market in … drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis and the eventual achievement of a ‘drug-free world.’”

“In practice, the global scale of illegal drug markets – largely controlled by organized crime – has grown dramatically over this period.”


So has bloodshed and violence as government forces and drug trafficking organizations engage in what the report calls “a kind of arms race” – tougher crackdowns prompt criminal mafias to respond with greater force.

Exhibit A for this arms race is Mexico, where at least 36,000 people have died since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon declared war on his country’s drug cartels and unleashed the Mexican army to fight them. The death toll has mounted year by year, the army is not winning, and there is no end in sight.

“Poorly designed drug law enforcement practices can actually increase the level of violence, intimidation and corruption associated with drug markets,” notes the report. It echoes many of the points made in a 2009 by a commission that focused on Latin America but did not go as far as recommending that governments debate and seriously consider “models of legal regulation” of all drugs, not only marijuana.

The driving force in the Global Commission, a private initiative launched in Geneva in January, is former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who also led the 2009 Latin American group together with former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo and former president Cesar Gaviria of Colombia.

Latin America is the world’s largest exporter of cocaine and marijuana, largely to the insatiable U.S. market, and a major supplier of opium and heroin. Around the world, drug producing countries are vulnerable to what Moises Naim, a scholar at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Venezuelan trade minister calls “the politicization of criminals and the criminalization of politicians.” It’s a process that has given birth to “narco states,” a label that has been used for countries as far apart as Venezuela and Afghanistan.

There is reason to be skeptical about the prospect of change within years rather than decades and the commission alluded to it – “a built-in vested interest” in continuing with policies that focus on enforcement, interdiction and eradication. It is an entrenched anti-drug establishment that provides employment for thousands of people, from narcotics agents and intelligence analysts to prison wardens.

One of the essential elements required to change that system is spelt out in the first of the commission report’s 11 recommendations: “Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won.”

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