Former Nation Leaders Assault The War On Drugs, Call For Blazing Changes

By Paul Gaita 09/18/14

The GCDP stated, in no uncertain terms, that the half-century spent on the drug war had “failed, with devastating consequences around the world.” It's time  to end the criminalization of drugs and pass legalization initiatives.


The Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) made headlines this week when it issued a report urging world leaders and the United Nations to end the criminalization of drugs and pass legalization initiatives. The report was the second of two such reports released by the commission, a 22-person panel comprised of former presidents, policymakers and world figures that has sought to, in their own words “bring to the international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies."  The report included six powerful recommendations (see below) for fundamental change, including an end to "compulsory treatment" of drug possessors and testing legally regulated markets in cannabis, coca leaf and "certain novel psychoactive substances."

Among its members are Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations; Ernesto Zedillo, former president of Mexico; George P. Shultz, Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan; author and Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil; and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Author Carlos Fuentes was also a member of the panel prior to his death in 2012.

The GCDP made its initial salvo in 2011 with a report that stated, in no uncertain terms, that the half-century spent on the drug war had “failed, with devastating consequences around the world.” Inspired by the 2009 Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, the commission concluded that criminalization had proved to be a vast drain on international economies in order to fund overcrowded prisons, but made little impact on the global availability of drugs or the toll taken on individuals and communities around the world. The core problem, according to the report, was the demand for drugs, which fueled not only organized crime but also societal unrest. While many critics saw this as a call for sweeping legalization initiatives, the commission called instead for more measured alternatives: “one possibility is to decriminalize the individual use of drugs while maintaining laws against supplying them, thus allowing law enforcement efforts to focus on the drug peddlers. Some of the money that is saved can be spent on treatment centers, which drug users are more likely to seek out if doing so does not expose them to the risk of arrest.”

The GCDP report drew praise from writers and thinkers around the world, from former President Jimmy Carter, who endorsed its recommendations in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, to Drug Policy Alliance founder Ethan Nadelmann. There was also the expected degree of criticism, but the adoption of the report’s core initiatives by groups like the Beckley Foundation’s Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform seemed to underscore that the commission had struck a nerve among the international drug policy community. Three years later, it appears that their words have carried considerable freight.

The new report outlines in stronger terms the destructive impact of the drug’s criminalization policies. According to its authors, the number of drug users worldwide rose from 203 million to 243 million between the years 2008 and 2012. This 18% boost also wreaked collateral damage in other related areas: opium production has quadrupled over this time period, while associated health risks have grown to epidemic levels, as shown by the number of Russian heroin users – four in 10 – that are also HIV-positive. The Mexican government’s aggressive war against the cartels may have put a damper on the export of drugs from their country, but at a cost of more than 120,000 lives in less than a single decade. As the report itself notes, “Overwhelming evidence points to not only just the failure of the drug control regime to attain its stated goals, but also the horrific unintended consequences of punitive and prohibitionist laws and policies.”

A summarized list of the commission’s complete recommendations for drug policy reform is as follows:

  • 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;
  • Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession – and stop imposing “compulsory treatment” on people whose only offense is drug use or possession;
  • 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;
  • Ensure equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medications for pain;
  • 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;
  • 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.


Ultimately, the GCDP’s reform suggestions echo what many state, nationwide and international policymakers have called for: treating drug addiction as a disease, not a crime, and reducing drug demand through educational initiatives and regulation by the government and health officials, not law enforcement. “Let’s allow and encourage countries to carefully test models of responsible legal regulations as a means to undermine the power of organized crime, which thrives on illicit drug trafficking,” wrote Fernando Henrique Cardoso, while his colleague, Ernesto Zedillo, added “Significant legal and institutional reforms, both at the national and international levels, are needed to allow governments and societies to put in place policies to regulate the supply of drugs with rigorous medical criteria.” The report has already achieved one of its most significant goals: to draw the attention of the United Nations in hopes of reversing its policies before the 2016 session on drugs. GCDP leadership met with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon soon after releasing the report, giving hope to the notion that global reform was more than just words on a page.

Paul Gaita is a Los Angeles-based writer. He has contributed to The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Amazon and The Los Angeles Beat, among other publications and sites. He last wrote about buying drugs online.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.