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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.

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Instead, according to UN estimates, in the decade from 1998 to 2008, annual rates of consumption of drugs have rocketed up by 34.5 percent for opiates, 27 percent for cocaine and 8.5 percent for cannabis. As of 2008 estimates, there were more than 17 million opiates and cocaine users, and 160 million consumers of cannabis.

The global drug trade is valued at trillions of dollars (and not just from cocaine; the Mexican officials approximate that almost half of the cartels' billions of dollars of annual revenue come from marijuana). But attempts to eradicate it have cost the United States alone $1 trillion, not to mention thousands of lives. Within our borders, rates of incarceration, often for lesser offenses related to drugs, are the highest in the world, over Russia, China or Iran.

Additionally, the current size of the prison population -- more than 2.3 million -- is directly related to the war on drugs and overwhelmingly made up of people of color. These rates of incarceration have also led to levels of overcrowding that recently prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to order the state of California to release some 30,000 prisoners, after ruling that crowded conditions violated inmates' constitutional protections, and according to Justice Anthony Kennedy, also their "human dignity."

"I think the business community can try to educate governments into realizing that filling up prisons with millions of drug users costing the countries billions of dollars is not the best use of their money," said Branson, who uniquely represents business interests on the commission.

But Branson also describes the U.S. obligation to combat consumption as "enormous" because it is the biggest market for drugs. Internationally, the U.S. has given billions in aid to countries for the adoption of similar policies to the war on drugs within its own borders, with a majority going to its southern neighbor. "Every time somebody in the U.S. snorts cocaine, they're effectively contributing to the death of a Mexican," Branson said.

Colombia is often cited as a successful example of U.S. strategy. Ravaged by cartels and violence from the drug trade, the Colombian government adopted the U.S.-recommended Plan Colombia, and has been able to regain control; however, as former president César Gaviria pointed out in a sunny back room at the Waldorf, the broader drug war has not ended, but intensified.

According to the Economist, nearly all the world's cocaine is produced in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, and consumed in the U.S., where a kilo will start at $12,500, wholesale, though prices have also been pushed higher by pressure on Mexican drug trade routes. The main market route shifted from Colombia-Florida, across the Caribbean, to the Pacific Coast of Mexico, but pressure there is pushing the trade into other Central American countries. As commission members noted, payment in drugs rather than cash is also contributing to the first significant use inside these countries as well, and the disturbing development of a local trade. Gaviria added, "Mexico is making an extraordinary effort, and they should be helped on that, but at the same time I think they have the right to ask the U.S. to look at the policy and see if it's effective."

Many feel we are further from the ultimate objective of the 1961 UN Convention -- the improvement of the "health and welfare of mankind" -- than ever before. Frustration with these failures is feeding a growing movement for drug policy reform. Mexico is the latest Latin American country to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis, cocaine, heroin and other drugs in 2009 -- much to the chagrin of the United Nations international drug enforcement body, the International Narcotics Control Board. Argentina's Supreme Court has ruled that punishing the personal use of cannabis is unconstitutional.

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