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The War on Pot Is an Abject Failure ... Now's the Time for a New Approach

Calls for a new international framework for narcotics control are growing.

Practically overnight, faster than you can say "Depression 2.0", a ballooning number of politicians, mainstream media journalists, and members of the public are acknowledging the fact that cannabis prohibition isn't drug control — it's drug chaos.  

In the U.S. -- where 42 percent of the adult population has used cannabis -- three-quarters of a million citizens are arrested every year for simple possession, draining limited resources from pressing issues like education, health care, and real "criminal justice". South of the border, where cannabis comprises more than half of Mexico's drug trafficking market, prohibitionist policies are fueling a grim and growing war that recently prompted the U.S. Joint Forces Command to warn that Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state. 

No wonder three-quarters of U.S. citizens think that the drug war is a failure, several states have introduced legislation this year to implement or expand decriminalization, and public support for outright marijuana legalization is polling higher than ever. Meanwhile, the crumbling economy has highlighted the monumental costs of cannabis enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration, not to mention the billions in potential taxes conceded to organized crime. (In a 2006 report, expert Jon Gettman used conservative estimates to value the annual U.S. cannabis crop at $36 billion -- absurdly, more than corn and wheat combined.)  

Abroad, the international community is also acknowledging the futility of U.S.-style prohibition as a model for global drug policy, and several countries have turned toward health-based approaches more in line with the U.N.’s health and human rights mandates.  Cannabis is subject to international control by the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as amended in 1971, and it is also affected by the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Although signatories of the international drug control treaties are formally required to criminalize the production, distribution, sale, use and possession of cannabis, a number of countries -- such as the Netherlands, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal, Austria and India -- have adopted less punitive policies.  

Yet, while the political viability of cannabis reform is reaching new found heights, there is a noticeable lack of consensus about the specific systems of regulation that could replace the current model. 

Moving Beyond Stalemate  

Enter the Global Cannabis Commission, an international team of leading public health policy experts (including Peter Reuter, Senior Economist at RAND) convened by the UK's Beckley Foundation. The Commission's Report and Draft Framework Convention on Cannabis Control map out solutions to break the current international stalemate, forming a blueprint for nations seeking to develop a more humane and effective approach to the control of cannabis. Among its recommendations, the Commission suggests reforming the international conventions to allow countries the leeway to implement differing systems of regulation that best suit their individual needs, even to the point of state production and licensed sale. The Commission identifies and analyzes potential routes forward -- depenalization, decriminalization, partial legality, and, finally, a regulated legal market. 

The Commission highlights aspects of international cannabis laws in need of revision and lays out ways in which countries can gain greater autonomy to pursue evidence-based cannabis policies. One way is for individual countries to denounce the international conventions and re-accede with a reservation on cannabis. Another way would be for a group of like-minded countries to negotiate and adopt a new convention specifically pertaining to cannabis -- this option is explored in the Beckley Foundation’s new Draft Framework Convention on Cannabis Control

Former President of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who has endorsed the Report, said that, "The Report of the Global Cannabis Commission convened by the Beckley Foundation is a valuable contribution to our thinking on the thorny subject of illicit drugs ... The failure of the 'War on Drugs' strategy is quite evident around the world, but the alternatives are not easy to grasp ... New policies must be based on empirical data, not on ideological assumptions and dogmas." Earlier this year, influenced by the Commission's Report, Cardoso, along with the former Presidents of Mexico and Colombia and 17 delegates from nine Latin American nations, called for a "paradigm shift" in international drug policy that includes the decriminalization of cannabis. The Commission's Report has also been endorsed by Jaswant Singh, leader of the opposition in the Indian Parliament's Upper House, and Jan Wiarda, former chairman of European Police Chiefs. 

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