Against the Drug War, but Not Ready to Give Peace a Chance


Yesterday the self-appointed Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a report condemning the war on drugs. It is reminiscent of the 2009 report from the self-appointed Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy. The resemblance is not surprising, since the former presidents behind the earlier initiative—Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—are also leading the new commission. But as Mike Riggs reported the other day, they've been joined by a bunch of notable international figures, including not just longtime critics of the war on drugs such as former Secretary of State George Shultz and Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa but prominent people who are less identified with the cause of drug policy reform, such as Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, and Javier Solana, former secretary general of NATO and former E.U. foreign policy chief. The 19 commissioners all signed off on some pretty strong criticism of the status quo:

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government's war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.

Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption….

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.

So far, so good. But this comment from Cardoso, the commission's chairman, gives me pause:

We are making this effort to open a debate and to say: Stop the war on drugs, and let's be more constructive in trying to reduce the consumption. It's not peace instead of war. It's a more intelligent way to fight.

What's wrong with declaring peace? As the report makes clear, the commission, whether for ideological or tactical reasons, is not prepared to renounce the use of force to stop people from consuming politically incorrect intoxicants. It wants to lighten up on users and low-level suppliers while cracking down on "violent criminal organizations…in ways that undermine their power and reach while prioritizing the reduction of violence and intimidation." But it is prohibition that enriches and empowers such organizations while encouraging them to be violent. As the Mexican government has vividly demonstrated since 2006, fighting drug cartels escalates the violence associated with the black market, which will persist as long as supplying people with the drugs they want remains illegal. The commission knows this: It quotes a study concluding that "drug-related violence and high homicide rates are likely a natural consequence of drug prohibition" and that "increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced methods of disrupting drug distribution networks may unintentionally increase violence." Practical concerns aside, the policy of decriminalizing possession while maintaining the bans on production and sale is morally incoherent: If drug use itself is not worthy of punishment, why should people go to prison merely for helping others commit this noncrime?

Still, there is a great deal of good sense in the 24-page report. For example:

Law enforcement efforts should focus not on reducing drug markets per se but rather on reducing their harms to individuals, communities and national security….

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 the health and security of their citizens….

The majority of people who use drugs do not fit the stereotype of the "amoral and pitiful addict."…

Most people involved in drug trafficking are petty dealers and not the stereotyped gangsters from the movies – the vast majority of people imprisoned for drug dealing or trafficking are "small fish" in the operation (often coerced into carrying or selling drugs), who can easily be replaced without disruption to the supply.

As I said regarding the 2009 report, talk of treating drug use as a "public health" issue, which is sprinkled through the new document, makes me nervous, not least because drug warriors have no problem adopting the same language, which can easily become a humane-sounding cover for repression. But on the whole, the reforms advocated in the report would be a huge improvement, and it is heartening to see so many big names endorsing them.

[Thanks to Mark Lambert for the A.P. story link.]