A coalition of former international leaders gathered in New York City on Tuesday to discuss the release of their new report calling for a complete overhaul of drug policies around the world, including legalization of psychoactive substances like marijuana.
In a discussion moderated by The Huffington Post's Washington bureau chief, Ryan Grim, 10 members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy urged all governments to embrace models that include decriminalization of consumption, legal regulation of drug markets and strategic refocusing of criminal enforcement.
Sound policy, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said, "does not allow human rights to be put aside in order to extend the repression of drugs."
The commission consists of 21 former presidents and other prominent individuals who are trying to advance "humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies." Its members include Cardoso; former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss; former Colombian President César Gaviria; former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo; Louise Arbour, former United Nations high commissioner for human rights; and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.
Cardoso said that a new approach to drugs should stress "the importance of public health" and ensure that drug users have access to the health care system.
Legalizing marijuana and other illicit substances "strengthens the fight against cartels," Gaviria argued.
While sweeping overnight change in global drug policy is likely impossible, Cardoso said that the world's governments must "put pressure" on the United Nations before the 2016 U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) to begin incremental change in the "inadequate" strategies of the "war on drugs" found in current international conventions.
The "U.N. system" starts with "a utopian goal, that prohibition will take us to a world that is free of drugs,” according to Zedillo. But in fact, he said, "Consumption has been increasing. Prohibition has created a disaster, not a world free of drugs."
Zedillo was referencing a previous UNGASS meeting in 1998 that called for a “drug-free world” -- a goal the commissioners argue isn’t realistic.
"We cannot abolish the use of drugs," Cardoso said. "So we need cultural modification."
Perhaps the gap between the commission's recommendations and U.N. policies was clearest during the question-and-answer portion of the conference, when an individual who identified herself as a representative from the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime suggested that it is futile to revamp drug policies because criminal organizations will just move to another illegal trade if they are pushed out of drugs.
"United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, it's interesting it's not called the U.N. Office of Drugs and Health," responded Arbour, noting how the very name of the office sets its focus. "We would like to see the World Health Organization, U.N. Women and UNAIDS to form a true partnership to revisit these completely failed policies."
Zedillo accused the U.N. of being a "straitjacket" on efforts to adopt new policies. "2016 is an opportunity to start a new international regime where governments can really control this drug problem. Our objective is to have a framework that empowers governments to pursue more rational policies," he added. "The specifics of those policies are to be defined by those governments and their civil societies."
The global commission's report lays out a series of recommendations in its executive summary:
- 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.
- Ensure equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medications for pain.
- Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession -- and stop imposing "compulsory treatment" on people whose only offense is drug use or possession.
- 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.
- 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.
- Allow and encourage diverse experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs, beginning with but not limited to cannabis, coca leaf and certain novel psychoactive substances.
- Take advantage of the opportunity presented by the upcoming UNGASS in 2016 to reform the global drug policy regime.
The report comes as punishment-oriented drug policies around the world are already being reconsidered and, within some countries, drastically reshaped.
Cardoso said there were "experiments going well around the world," including the United States. "We have experiences in Portugal since 1991, where they have decriminalized the use of drugs. Users get treatment assistance but are not put in jail. It has been very effective in Portugal; the results are quite clear," he said. Cardoso also noted drug policy reforms in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain and Uruguay.
In 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to approve legal regulation of the production, distribution and sale of marijuana. While the U.S. government continues to ban marijuana in nearly all instances, two states -- Colorado and Washington -- have legalized the recreational use of the drug within their borders. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use, and many more states are expected to consider legalization in some form in the coming years.
"These world leaders have seen, from their own experience, how the failed war on drugs harms countries and populations," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, in an interview with The Huffington Post. He urged President Barack Obama to side with them.
"I have no doubt that President Obama will evolve and join this group and the majority of Americans in at least endorsing the legalization of marijuana, just as he did with marriage equality," Angell said. "The only question is if this evolution will occur before or after his term as president ends. I'm sure the global commission's members would welcome him to their ranks as one more former head of state on the record for legalization, but it'll be a lot more impactful if he undergoes this transformation while he still has the power to change failed policies that harm people every day."
Read the full report, "Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies That Work," here.