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Will Godfrey Will Godfrey

World Leaders Make Unprecedented Call for the Legal Regulation of Drugs


A group of former presidents unveils far-reaching proposals for a set of policies to replace the ones that have failed.

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“If we were having this debate today without the background of the past 50 years of the war on drugs, a sophisticated system of legal regulation would be the mainstream position—prohibition would be a radical fringe option,” said Louise Arbour, the former UN high commissioner for human rights, at a press conference in a crowded auditorium at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art this morning.

She and her fellow members of the heavyweight Global Commission on Drug Policy—including former presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Poland, Portugal and Switzerland, and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan—are seeking to reset that debate. And their status ensures that they will be heard. The commission’s new report, Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies That Work, calls for a raft of radical reforms:

*Put health and community safety first through 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.

*Allow and encourage diverse experiments in legally regulated 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 British business magnate Richard Branson, a longtime backer of drug policy reform and a member of the commission, also took the stage. “As a businessman,” he said, by analogy with the war on drugs, “if I’d had a business that had been running for 50 years and it had progressively got worse and worse and worse, hopefully somebody would had taken me off to psychiatric hospital.”

After listing some of the “unforgivable horrors” inflicted by prohibitionist policies, Branson said, “what I would do is look for other examples where things are going better. Portugal is a shining example to the world of a system that has worked.” He ended by addressing politicians currently in power: “Please be brave. You don’t have to be that brave! Please do the right thing for your citizens. Let’s put these issues behind us so we don’t have to sit here on a lovely summer day in a basement and talk about them.”

Jorge Sampaio, the former president of Portugal, which in 2001 took the bold step of decriminalizing all drug use and focusing on public health instead of enforcement, succinctly summarized the benefits that these policies have brought to his country: “In 10 years the number of drug users decreased; the number of drug users who voluntarily enter treatment increased; the number of HIV and hepatitis C infections has declined significantly every year since 2001, and the mortality rate has also decreased.”

None of the leaders present spoke the language of harm reduction more fluently than Ruth Dreifuss, the former president of Switzerland who oversaw another drug policy success story: a public health approach that included the introduction of Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT). “Scientific knowledge… has progressed over the decades,” she said, “however our policies have not—or not enough.” Noting that “it is important to distinguish the harms produced by drugs…from the harms produced by drug prohibition,” she also called for a more flexible approach to addiction treatment, saying that optimum results are “not possible in a world where having abstinence as the only aim of treatment is still the rule.”

Reflecting a climate in which the US government and others often adopt progressive language while continuing to persecute and incarcerate people who use drugs, Dreifuss argued that “You cannot live longer in this contradiction of the prohibition of drugs and this public health and social approach.”

Ernesto Zedillo, the former president of Mexico—a country that has suffered enormously because of the war on drugs and the attendant cartel violence—spoke with particular passion. “It is imperative to take the drug trade away from the hands of organized crime [through the legal regulation of drugs],” he said. “Organized crime would not then have the capacity to hurt societies and institutions.” Noting how governments use legal frameworks to regulate everything from alcohol to airspace to food safety standards, he declared that “putting health institutions and regulatory bodies in control of the drug market is imperative to reduce the harms of drugs.”

Zedillo also referred to the two American members of the commission to illustrate the body’s breadth: “I don’t think anyone can accuse [former secretary of state] George Schultz and [former chairman of the Federal Reserve] Paul Volcker of being extravagant promotors of drug consumption. I think they are quite conservative, serious people who have thought hard about this.”

In terms of inspiring renewed international engagement, the commission’s target is the UN special session on drugs (UNGASS) in 2016. But given the difficulties of renegotiating international treaties there is, as Louise Arbour put it, “no expectation of the text of a new convention to be ready to be debated in 2016.”

“Institutions are normally slow to change,” said Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former president of Brazil, this morning. “But transformations can occur more rapidly in culture and society, and this is what’s happening.” Despite the treaty situation, the leaders expressed a belief that flexible interpretations will enable the “experiments” being seen in US states, Portugal, Uruguay and elsewhere to continue and spread.

“It is very important for countries to take the risk of experimenting with regulation so that the world can learn what works and what doesn’t,” said Ruth Dreifuss. “Having countries to make these pilot projects is a service for the whole world.”

The Global Commission on Drug Policy’s high-profile intervention will ignite wider debate of these vital issues and has delighted leading drug policy reform advocates.

“Around the world, small organizations are bravely fighting for sensible drug policies. They do so on behalf of constituencies that are terribly marginalized, said Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Global Drug Policy Program at the Open Society Foundations. “Having such a sterling body of leaders recognizing the importance of these urgent reforms will continue to generate momentum for grass-roots groups everywhere.”

“The import of the Commission’s report lies in both the distinction of its members and the boldness of their recommendations,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “There’s no question now that the genie of reform has escaped the prohibitionist bottle.”

Will Godfrey is the editor-in-chief of Substance.com.