Drug War

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.]

NEXT: Reason Writers Around Town: Shikha Dalmia on the Conservative Response to the Supreme Court's Prison Crowding Decision

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  1. Legalize it. And don’t criticize it.

    Legalize it. Yeah. Yeah.

    And I will advertise it.

  2. 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.

    There’s really not enough context in that article to interpret how he means it. One can be convinced that drug use is a bad thing but that the best ways to fight it are by convincing people it is bad, not by forcing them. Such a person could be “fighting” drug use “intelligently” (by appealing to people’s reason) without trying to force anyone to do anything.

    While it doesn’t sound like he’s declaring peace, it does sound like he’s essentially agreeing to a cease-fire, which is probably the best that can be hoped for at present. In addition, I’m sure Cardoso has to say these things as a hedge against criticism that the findings are “pro-drug”, “anti-child”, or whatever other smear might be leveled against them by drug warriors. All in all, I think his statement is pretty good given the reality that public figures are pretty much obligated to say that drugs are Bad Things.

    1. While it doesn’t sound like he’s declaring peace, it does sound like he’s essentially agreeing to a cease-fire, which is probably the best that can be hoped for at present.

      Isn’t that typically how wars end? Ha any war gone directly from combat->peacetreaty?

  3. How long do you think the media is going to prop up this story? The optimist in me says people might be ready to have an adult debate about this issue, and that the media might keep the spotlight on this for some time. The pessimist in me thinks the media will let this die off quietly in favor of all the other stupid shit that the average idiot cares more about…like celebrity blemishes.

    1. And the kid in me likes the frosty sugar coating!

      Of cocaine, that is.

    2. What makes you think there’s a media spotlight on this story in the first place?

      1. Good question. I see that many major news outlets are reporting it. And yesterday it was on the main page under the top stories section of the Google news aggregator. I don’t watch TV so I don’t know what kind of living-room coverage it’s getting, but the Internet news outlets seem to be covering it fairly consistently.

      2. I first heard about it on the radio driving home from work.

  4. They can’t stop the Drug War.

    What about the poor prison guards?
    They might lose their jobs!

    What about the prosecutors and defense lawyers?
    They might have to find honest work!

    What about the police departments?
    They need confiscated property to fund their SWAT teams!

    What about Big Pharma?
    We can’t let people self-medicate!

    What about the drug kingpins?
    They won’t be able to kill people with gold plated guns!

    Oh the horror!

    1. What about the drug kingpins?
      They won’t be able to afford political contributions!


  5. The reason these people can’t just seem to say “legalize it and be done with it” is that they are almost all former politicians/government schmucks. They cannot get out of the mindset that the people must be controlled, and they are the controllers.

    Don’t expect this to change.

    1. Freedom and control is a false dichotomy. The purpose of government is to build character!

      Yea, I am the second coming of Hume!

    2. Sadly, they also know that if they do say “legalize it and be done with it” they will be written off as fruitcakes by most of their intended audience.

      If you want to make policy changes you have to present them in a way that won’t be automatically dismissed by those in power. This is as close as they can come to saying what you want them to say without being run out on a rail, and they are arguing for a net reduction in the power of the state, which has to be a good thing in the grand scheme of things. So they may still have that mindset yet if their viewpoint were heard it would be a change.

  6. With the war against smokers and fat people why would anyone think the war on drugs is ever going to end? Folks, you can’t have fascism and freedom at the same time, right now fascism is winning, specially in places like New York and San Francisco.

    1. Everytime I completely agree with Greg Smith, I die a little inside.

      1. Aw, that is so sweet. Relax Jimbo, I’m just a politically incorrect libertarian with a dash of rightwing views. I say “Make love and war, hopefully at the same time.”

  7. Nothing to see here folks. Move along.

  8. The latest dispatch from California’s war on the medical marijuana its voters legalized: Fresno County goes into full-on Prohibition mode.

  9. right now fascism is winning, specially in places like New York and San Francisco

    You’re more right than you know; San Francisco, in particular, seems to be embracing fascism in its more colloquial, anti-Semitic sense.

    1. After reading it, thats…actually very disturbing. I can’t even bring myself to make a joke about it.

      1. Yep. San Francisco may be a beautiful city with great food, but “disturbing” is a very good word to describe its politics.

    2. Wow. I’d expect that cartoon from agents provocateurs or the Onion. Amazing that the folks who produced it were, apparently, convinced it was a good idea.

  10. The therapeutic anti-drug-warriors sort of annoy me.

    Put it in the context of sexual liberalism — if Iran moves from executing gays as abominations against the law of Allah and nature, to simply treating them as mentally ill and brainwashing them into heterosexuality, I’m not saying that isn’t a step in the right direction, but it’s just a slightly less violent version of being an intolerant asshole.

  11. The War on Drugs failed Billions of dollars ago! This money could have been used for outreach programs to clean up the bad end of drug abuse by providing free HIV testing, free rehab, and clean needles. Harmless drugs like marijuana could be legalized to help boost our damaged economy. Cannabis can provide hemp for countless natural recourses and the tax revenue from sales alone would pull every state in our country out of the red! Vote Teapot, PASS IT, and legalize it. Voice you opinion with the movement and download my FREE poster at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot…..-2011.html

  12. Anyone vaguely interested in this issue is amazed that this group of politicians/statists has made as much progress as it has pulling its head out of its ass. Reasonable observers did not expect to go from totally fucked up to perfection in a single bound.

  13. I have a feeling that in 20 years, politicians will compromise between jail and freedom for drug users by locking them up in psychiatric wards. They will probably forcibly medicate drug users to “cure” them of their “addictions”.

    1. You have to drug the village to save the drugs. Wait, no…

  14. I signed it. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely a good start. Maybe we can stop the senseless killings by drug cartels and law enforcement alike.

  15. “Practical concerns aside, the policy of decriminalizing possession while maintaining the bans on production and sale is morally incoherent…”

    No it isn’t, because possession can be fabricated, and the victim is then required to prove that the possession was involuntary. This reversal of the onus of proof is incompatible with the rule of law and is therefore unconstitutional in all jurisdictions: http://is.gd/ccxry6 .

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