Five Ways to End the Drug War; Start by Decriminalizing Drug Use

A Colombian anti-drugs police officer checks packages of marijuana, part of a load of five tons seized in the outskirts of Ca
A Colombian anti-drugs police officer checks packages of marijuana, part of a load of five tons seized in the outskirts of Cali, department of Valle del Cauca, Colombia, on February 27, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Luis ROBAYO (Photo credit should read LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)

The international drug control regime is broken. Past approaches premised on a punitive law enforcement paradigm have failed, emphatically so. They have resulted in more violence, larger prison populations, and the erosion of governance around the world. The health harms associated with drug use have gotten worse, not better. The Global Commission on Drug Policy instead advocates for an approach to drug policy that puts public health, community safety, human rights and development at the center.

Below I have listed the five pathways to ending the drug war recommended by the Global Commission on Drug Policy that I chair. (Other members of the commission, ranging from Kofi Annan to Paul Volcker to former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo are listed after the recommendations.)

1. Putting health and community safety first requires a fundamental reorientation of policy priorities and resources, from failed punitive enforcement to proven health and social interventions.

Both the stated goals of drug control policies, and the criteria by which such policies are assessed, merit reform. Traditional goals and measures -- such as hectares of illicit crops eradicated, amounts of drugs seized, and number of people arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations -- have failed to produce positive outcomes.

Far more important are goals and measures that focus on reducing both drug-related harms such as fatal overdoses, HIV/ AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases as well as prohibition-related harms such as crime, violence, corruption, human rights violations, environmental degradation, displacement of communities and the power of criminal organizations. Spending on counterproductive enforcement measures should be ended, while proven prevention, harm reduction and treatment measures are scaled up to meet need.

2. Ensure equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medications for pain.

More than 80 percent of the world's population carries a huge burden of avoidable pain and suffering with little or no access to such medications. This state of affairs persists despite the fact that the avoidance of ill health and access to essential medicines is a key objective and obligation of the global drug control regime.

Governments need to establish clear plans and timelines to remove the domestic and international obstacles to such provision. They also should allocate the necessary funding for an international program -- to be overseen by the World Health Organization and developed in partnership with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Narcotics Control Board -- to ensure equitable and affordable access to these medicines where they are unavailable.

3. Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession -- and stop imposing "compulsory treatment" on people whose only offense is drug use or possession.

Criminalization of drug use and possession has little to no impact on levels of drug use in an open society. Such policies do, however, encourage high risk behaviours such as unsafe injecting, deter people in need of drug treatment from seeking it, divert law enforcement resources from focusing on serious criminality, reduce personal and government funds that might otherwise be available for positive investment in people's lives and burden millions with the long-lasting negative consequences of a criminal conviction.

Using the criminal justice system to force people arrested for drug possession into "treatment" often does more harm than good. Far better is ensuring the availability of diverse supportive services in communities. This recommendation, it should be noted, requires no reform of international drug control treaties.

Rely on alternatives to incarceration for non-violent, low-level participants in illicit drug markets such as farmers, couriers and others involved in the production, transport and sale of illicit drugs.

Governments devote ever increasing resources to detecting, arresting and incarcerating people involved in illicit drug markets -- with little or no evidence that such efforts reduce drug-related problems or deter others from engaging in similar activities. Community-based and other non-criminal sanctions routinely prove far less expensive, and more effective than criminalization and incarceration.

Subsistence farmers and day laborers involved in harvesting, processing, transporting or trading and who have taken refuge in the illicit economy purely for reasons of survival should not be subjected to criminal punishment. Only longer term socioeconomic development efforts that improve access to land and jobs, reduce economic inequality and social marginalization, and enhance security can offer them a legitimate exit strategy.

4. Focus on reducing the power of criminal organizations as well as the violence and insecurity that result from their competition with both one another and the state.

Governments need to be far more strategic, anticipating the ways in which particular law enforcement initiatives, particularly militarized "crackdowns," may exacerbate criminal violence and public insecurity without actually deterring drug production, trafficking or consumption. Displacing illicit drug production from one locale to another, or control of a trafficking route from one criminal organization to another, often does more harm than good.

The goals of supply-side enforcement need to be reoriented from unachievable market eradication to achievable reductions in violence and disruption linked to the trafficking. Enforcement resources should be directed towards the most disruptive, problematic and violent elements of the trade -- alongside international cooperation on the crackdown on corruption and money laundering. Militarizing anti-drug efforts is seldom effective and often counterproductive. Greater accountability for human rights abuses committed in pursuit of drug law enforcement is essential.

5. Allow and encourage diverse experiments in legally regulating markets for currently illicit drugs, beginning with but not limited to cannabis, the coca leaf and certain novel psychoactive substances.

Much can be learned from successes and failures in regulating alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceutical drugs and other products and activities that pose health and other risks to individuals and societies.

New experiments are needed in allowing legal but restricted access to drugs that are now only available illegally. This should include the expansion of heroin-assisted treatment for some long-term dependent users, which has proven so effective in Europe and Canada. Ultimately the most effective way to reduce the extensive harms of the global drug prohibition regime and advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation.

Take advantage of the opportunity presented by the upcoming United Nations General Assembly Special Session in 2016 to reform the global drug policy regime.

The leadership of the U.N. Secretary-General is essential to ensure that all relevant U.N. agencies -- not just those focused on law enforcement but also health, security, human rights and development -- engage fully in a "One-U.N." assessment of global drug control strategies. The U.N. Secretariat should urgently facilitate open discussion, including new ideas and recommendations that are grounded in scientific evidence, public health principles, human rights and development.

Policy shifts towards harm reduction, ending criminalization of people who use drugs, proportionality of sentences and alternatives to incarceration have been successfully defended over the past decades by a growing number of countries on the basis of the legal latitude allowed under the U.N. treaties. Further exploration of flexible interpretations of the drug treaties is an important objective, but ultimately the global drug control regime must be reformed to permit responsible legal regulation.

GLOBAL COMMISSION ON DRUG POLICY MEMBERS Kofi Annan chairman of the Kofi Annan Foundation and former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ghana Louise Arbour former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Canada Pavel Bém former mayor of Prague, Czech Republic Richard Branson entrepreneur, advocate for social causes, founder of the Virgin Group, cofounder of The Elders, United Kingdom Fernando Henrique Cardoso former President of Brazil (chair) Maria Cattaui former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce, Switzerland Ruth Dreifuss former Minister of Social Affairs and former President of Switzerland Cesar Gaviria former President of Colombia Asma Jahangir human rights activist, former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Executions, Pakistan Michel Kazatchkine UN Secretary-General Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and former Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, France Aleksander Kwasniewski former President of Poland Ricardo Lagos former President of Chile George Papandreou former Prime Minister of Greece Jorge Sampaio former President of Portugal George Shultz former Secretary of State, United States (honorary chair) Javier Solana former European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Spain Thorvald Stoltenberg former Minister of Foreign Affairs and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Norway Mario Vargas Llosa writer and public intellectual, Peru Paul Volcker former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve and of the Economic Recovery Board, United States John Whitehead former Deputy Secretary of State, former Co-Chairman Goldman Sachs & Co., Founding Chairman, 9/11 Memorial & Museum, United States Ernesto Zedillo former President of Mexico

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