The War on Drugs is a failure, and legalization may be the answer
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The War on Drugs is a failure, and legalization may be the answer

A group of experts and former world leaders has issued one of the sharpest criticisms yet of the global War on Drugs, calling the U.S.-led policy a “failure” and calling for a massive overhaul of international drug policy, including pushing for legalization of some substances.

In a report released Tuesday, the Global Commission on Drugs said the policy has failed “on its own terms” and pointed out that many of the laws and tactics employed under the umbrella of the War on Drugs have undermined human rights, negatively affected public health, wasted billions of dollars, promoted discrimination and allowed criminal and drug-smuggling organizations to thrive and profit, as both consumption and production have continued to rise across the globe.

The report’s uncommonly stern language calls for sweeping changes in anti-drug and drug use policy, including changing laws that lead to disproportionate and discriminatory incarceration, decriminalizing drug use and possession and creating legal marketplaces for substances such as marijuana, coca leaves and some

The group’s 21 members include billionaire Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson; former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan; former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour; Peruvian intellectual Mario Vargas Llosa and former presidents of Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Colombia, among others.

Branson has been an outspoken critic of drug policy for many years. During a press conference Tuesday to announce the release of the report, Branson compared the War on Drugs to a “business that has failed for 50 years.”

“Please do the right thing and change drug policy,” Branson said, addressing governments around the world. “Treat it as a health problem, not a criminal issue.”

‘Because they are risky, not because they are safe’

The report, titled Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work, calls on international organizations like the U.N. and the Organization of American States, as well as national governments and local politicians, to take “bold but pragmatic” steps toward reforming drug policy at both the national and international levels. From the report’s executive summary:

“Harsh measures grounded in repressive ideologies must be replaced by more humane and effective policies shaped by scientific evidence, public health principles and human rights standards.”

The Commission takes governments to task for legislation that criminalizes drug use and possession or imposes “compulsory treatment” on drug users, saying these laws have “little to no impact on levels of drug use in an open society” and drain financial, medical and law enforcement resources that could better be used in other ways.

Instead, the authors say, those resources should be redirected toward disrupting drug trafficking networks and the organized criminal groups that control them.

The study points to the total failure of scorched-earth militarized responses in countries like Mexico and Colombia, which have actually resulted in deteriorated security and have had little effect on the production, trafficking or export of drugs in and from those nations.

The report also sharply critiques the practice of punishing non-violent, low-level participants in drug production networks, such as farmers, couriers and day laborers.

Those “who have taken refuge in the illicit economy purely for reasons of survival should not be subjected to criminal punishment,” says the report, adding that the only “legitimate exit strategy” will come from long-term development efforts that improve access to education and legal job opportunities and decrease inequality and marginalization of certain groups.

In the United States, home to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners despite accounting for just 5 percent of the global population, more than half of federal inmates are in prison for drug convictions. Meanwhile, more than 30 countries still allow the death penalty for some drug offenses, leading to the execution of about 1,000 people each year for drug-related crimes.

Women and minority groups, especially black communities in countries like the U.S., U.K. and Australia, are disproportionately affected by drug laws and incarcerated for drug offenses at much higher rates than other groups.

Perhaps the most controversial of the Commission’s seven major recommendations is the proposal for “diverse experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs,” saying the substances should be regulated “because they are risky, not because they are safe.”

The report does not suggest legalizing all drugs, but does propose beginning with marijuana and coca leaves, which already have strong pro-legalization political movements. However, the writers point out, many other substances that are illegal when it comes to recreational use — including amphetamines and opiates — are produced safely and in a non-violent environment for medical purposes, suggesting that regulation even of these stronger substances isn’t out of the question.

A global trend

While the report may come as a bit of a jolt to governments that haven’t updated drug policy in decades, the Commission’s suggestions echo widespread popular sentiment and movements that are already in process in many countries around the world.

In 2013, Uruguay made history when it became the first country to pass laws to create a legal, regulated market for marijuana. Though the process has been far from smooth, the country has provided an example for other nations that may wish to implement similar legislation.

A number of Caribbean countries are currently debating legislation to reform laws related to possession of marijuana. Both Brazil and Mexico have taken legislative steps to decriminalize the possession of certain quantities of drugs, while high courts in Argentina and Colombia have ruled that it is unconstitutional to prosecute citizens for possession of drugs for personal use. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has voiced tacit support for legalizing marijuana, endorsing a bill introduced this year that would decriminalize medical marijuana use.

Even in the United States, where the term “War on Drugs” originated, 17 states have decriminalized personal possession of cannabis, while 23 have legal medical marijuana markets, with Colorado and Washington state essentially legalizing  marijuana use.

Governments are likely to be slow to respond to the study’s recommendations — if they respond at all — and countries like the U.S. and Russia are expected to resist the proposed changes, but the report and the names behind it provide important legitimacy for the various drug reform campaigns and initiatives already happening around the world.

With more support from the international community and world leaders, the proponents of thoughtful, humane drug reform initiatives may in time come to be seen not as self-serving pot-smoking hippies, but instead as human rights defenders.