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The Establishment Turns Against the Drug War

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, billionaire Richard Branson and a half-dozen ex-presidents say it's time to discuss legalizing drugs. But don't hold your breath waiting for change.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says it's time to end drug prohibition. Photo by Eric Roset

A record number of people are using drugs. Farmers are growing more heroin than ever before, and criminal organizations are making so much money from the sale of illicit narcotics that their revenues dwarf the legal trade in cereal, wine, beer, coffee, and tobacco combined. The war on drugs has succeeded in ruining millions of lives, with people worldwide thrown in prison for nothing more than getting high and helping others do the same–or getting murdered in the crossfire of drug war violence. Prohibition has so miserably failed to achieve any of its stated goals that even gross old politicians, the last to embrace change, are saying the status quo is unacceptable. Legalization, once a topic only seriously discussed in college dorms, has gone mainstream.

“Ultimately, the most effective way to reduce the extensive harms of the global drug prohibition regime and advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation,” says a new report from the Global Commission on Drugs. The group—composed of establishment luminaries such as former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, billionaire Richard Branson, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, and honorary co-chair George Shultz, who served as US Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan—unveiled its recommendations this morning at a press conference in New York. A delegation, including former president of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo, then met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has previously called drug addiction “a disease, not a crime.”

For a group of stodgy old politicians, who tend to be experts in saying lots of words that mean nothing at all, the recommendations are refreshingly blunt. “Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession,” the report says, but not only that: “Stop imposing ‘compulsory treatment’ on people whose only offense is drug use or possession.” That last clause marks an important shift. Before, the liberal and humanitarian approach to drugs was to approach it as a “public health” issue rather than a criminal one, which in practice meant confining drug users to for-profit treatment centers rather than for-profit prisons—an improvement, perhaps, but ultimately just kinder, gentler form of mass incarceration.

It also doesn’t work, coercively treating people for a legally determined addiction—including to substances as relatively innocuous as marijuana—that the user has no personal desire to cure. Nowadays, the largest public health bodies are leading the charge against mandatory drug rehab. In July, for instance, the World Health Organization said countries “should ban compulsory treatment for people who use and/or inject drugs.”

The commission’s report reflects the new consensus. “Using the criminal justice system to force people arrested for drug possession into ‘treatment’ often does more harm than good,” the report says. Drug courts that are sold as an alternative to the lock-’em-away ethos of the drug war because they mandate treatment instead of prison time are, according to the commission, no alternative at all, but rather an attempt to “retrospectively impose a health-based approach within a criminal justice paradigm.” If one wishes to protect drug users, one must work to reduce “the likelihood of people who use drugs coming into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.” That means not arresting them in the first place.

“The treatment model most likely to deliver the best outcomes for an individual is one decided between the individual and their doctor or service provider,” says the commission, “free from political interference or coercion.” The state should offer a helping hand, not an iron fist.

The current approach certainly isn’t working, at least if the availability and use of illegal drugs is the metric and not drug rehab profits or prison beds filled. According to the UN, there were 203 million drug users in 2008; by 2012, there were 243 million. Global opium production has risen 380 percent since 1980. Drug trafficking organizations in Mexico have a larger budget for bribes than the state has for its attorney general’s office thanks to revenues that, according to the UN, exceed the total revenues generated by the export of coffee, cigarettes and alcohol.

But change? Good luck waiting for that. As welcome as it is to see decrepit old men lining up to endorse the Global Drug Commission’s recommendations, the people saying the right thing now were generally doing the wrong thing back when they had real political power. It’s only in retirement that many politicians find their voice.

Bolivian coca growers celebrate the legalization of coca-leaf chewing. Photo by Matthew Straubmuller

To be fair, it’s not as if the former presidents who have signed onto the commission’s recommendations had a lot of choice in the matter. Members of the United Nations are, at least technically, forbidden from doing what the commission recommends: regulating drugs as opposed to outright prohibiting them. When Uruguay first considered legalizing marijuana, the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board warned the South American nation that it would “be in complete contravention to the provisions of the international drug treaties to which [it] is party.” In 2016, however, there will be a United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs, which commission chairman and former president of Brazil Henrique Cardoso believes will offer “an historic opportunity to discussion the shortcomings of the drug control regime.”

Given the lack of urgency to address the crisis of international climate change with a new treaty, though, what’s the chance the global community will tear apart existing ones that require states to pledge allegiance to drug prohibition—and do so over the objections of a US empire? Not great, though with the US unable to rally sufficient opposition to block Bolivia from legalizing the chewing of coca leaves, there is cause for optimism.

"Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana was an absolute game changer," said Tom Angell, a long-time drug policy reform campaigner who heads the group Marijuana Majority. "When the US has legal marijuana in its own backyard, it's much harder for our federal government to go around telling other countries that they cannot reform their own drug policies."

Still, reform on the international level comes at a glacial pace, the fact it’s even being considered because the states at the bottom, from Uruguay to Colorado, have forced the issue. Hope for change and work for it, but unless your lungs are full of burning plant matter, don’t hold your breath.

Follow Charles Davis on Twitter.