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Major International Leaders Plead for the US and the World to Get Smart and Stop the War on Drugs

The Commission on Drug Policy urged a shift from incarceration to consideration of a full range of alternatives, from decriminalization to legalization and regulation.

The Waldorf Astoria may be worlds away from the blood-spotted streets of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where the "drug war" has taken over 35,000 lives; the fiefdom-like favelas of Rio, Brazil, where even the police don't go; or Pakistan, one of the lowest-ranking on human development in the world, and neighbor to its largest opium producer. But members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy came to the famed New York hotel Friday to bring together leading thinkers and call for an end to the global "war on drugs," whose failed policies have claimed thousands of victims around the world over the last five decades.

The Commission on Drug Policy released a report Thursday outlining these failures and recommending reforms, among them a shift from criminalization to public health and from incarceration to consideration of a full range of alternatives, from decriminalization to legalization and regulation.

Despite the evidence, the political will and public support to transform drug policy remains anemic, as voiced by Ricken Patel, executive director at Avaaz, a global advocacy organization. He described his initial reaction to the drug policy commission at the New York press conference: "What have these people been smoking?"

But the commission's mandate is perhaps unprecedentedly deep and broad; the commissioners hail from 15 countries around the world, from North and Latin America, to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. They are four former presidents, United Nations dignitaries, authors and intellectuals, health and security officials, NGO directors and entrepreneurs.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil, chairs the commission that also boasts a Nobel laureate; Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel prize for literature this year. Kofi Annan is a personally impassioned member, due to regrets that he did not do more on drug policy in his former capacity as Secretary General of the UN, according to fellow member Richard Branson, entrepreneur, public advocate and the man who also said that within one year he'll be sending civilians into space. Asma Jahangir, former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Executions, is from Pakistan, and George Papandreou, one of the commission's only acting heads of state, is prime minister of the beleaguered country of Greece.

Public support for an end to the war on drugs shows signs of shifting as well. Patel presented Cardoso with a golf-check-like board, citing over 550,000 signatures of support from every country in the world for their campaign to overhaul global drug policy -- with an additional 1,500 added during the meeting itself, according to Patel. The commission delivered its report and the petition to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon today.

But the diversity of the panel at the Waldorf and the strong representation of two regions that have long led a continuing shift away from the "prohibitionist" policies of the world-wide war on drugs -- Latin America and Western Europe -- made the absence of the primary architect of these policies all the more glaring.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who hosted the event, noted several of the commission's absent members, describing honorary chair George Schultz as former secretary of "everything," to much laughter. John Whitehead, a banker and chair of the World Trade Center Memorial, is also a member, as is Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the U.S. Economic Recovery Board and the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Yet, thus far the country that created many of the drug policies that have since been exported and enforced around the globe has been resistant to the calls of the Commission. Fifty years ago, in 1961, the United Nations initiated the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan launched the U.S. government's "war on drugs" that continues to this day. The goal was a drug-free world, and the means to achieve it was fierce enforcement, a harsh crackdown on those involved in the production, distribution and consumption of drugs like heroin, cocaine and cannabis.

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