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World Leaders Denounce Drug War as a Flop

Today is the 40th anniversary of the War on Drugs. A new report by former world leaders calls criminalization a failure and demands a public health approach.

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What’s the endgame?
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By Hannah Blume

06/17/11

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Four decades ago today—June 17, 1971—President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “Public Enemy No. 1,” thereby launching America’s “War on Drugs.” (Nixon would go on to launch a "War on Cancer"—he was a leader who clearly liked being embroiled in battles at home and abroad.) So here’s the lede: Forty years, $1 trillion, and hundreds of thousands of lives later, Public Enemy No. 1 is still at large—and larger than ever.

“The global war on drugs has failed,” begins the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which was released earlier this month and has been sending shockwaves through the drug policy community. The well-packaged report's take-home could not be plainer: “Break the taboo on debate and reform. The time for action is now.”

“For the first time, the wind is at my back and not at my face,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and a key advisor on the report, told The Fix. “Never before has such a distinguished group of individuals made such far-reaching recommendations for drug policy reform.” Indeed, the list of rock-star commissioners is impressive, including the former President of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso; former president of Columbia César Gaviria; last year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa; former Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan; entrepreneur Richard Branson; and prime minister of Greece George Papandreou.

Even George Shultz, who served in the Nixon administration and was secretary of state under Ronald Reagan—both ardent champions of the War on Drugs—signed on to the report. Shultz, along with Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, published an op-ed in last week’s Wall Street Journal: “Our judgment, shared by other members of the commission, is that this approach has not worked, just as our national expeeriment with the prohibition of alcohol failed.” 

According to Nadelmann, “US drug policy is still an area where politics trumps science,” closing the door for any substantive debate on drug decriminalization or legalization. When asked about Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske’s comments that “there is no war on drugs,” Nadelmann insists, “It’s nothing new. That is the same thing that every Drug Czar has said since 1993.”

But the response to the report has given Nadelmann reason for optimism. “We simply cannot treat them all as criminals,” the report states, citing the conservative UN estimate of 250 million drug users in the world today. “It is not possible to frighten or punish someone out of drug dependence.” It follows, fairly obviously, that even the comparatively progressive Obama administration opposes the report’s recommendation to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs (with cannabis, for example) that are designed to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard to health and security of their citizens.”

The report features Portugal—the first European country to decriminalize the use and possession all illicit drugs in 2001—as the most prominent example of its claim that “decriminalization initiatives do not result in significant increases in drug use.” In particular, it noted a decline in the use of heroin and overall levesl of “problematic” drug use. 

After forty years of Nancy Reagan-esque talk and “lock ‘em up” policies, the release of the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy marks a stunning about-face in the approach to drug users and addicts.  “I’ve been at this a long time, and the endorsements of things like human rights for heroin addicts by these types of people,” Nadelmann said, “is extraordinary.”

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