Major International Leaders Plead for the US and the World to Get Smart and Stop the War on Drugs
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Three former presidents and commission members -- Gaviria, Cardoso and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico -- have all argued that legalization would undermine the major source of income for cartels that still ravage the region, and that the prohibition of drugs fuels violence while not stopping consumption.
According to the commission's report, the starting point for effective policy must be "the recognition of the global drug problem as a set of interlinked health and social challenges to be managed, rather than a war to be won."
The report highlights several examples of countries that have successfully adopted this approach.
Countries that have enacted "harm reduction" strategies, which can include syringe access and medication, and public health initiatives -- like the UK, Switzerland, Germany and Australia -- have had lower rates of HIV transmission among people who inject drugs than in countries that have resisted such strategies, like Thailand and Russia. Switzerland, the UK and the Netherlands, which in the heyday of Reagan's war on drugs in the '80s had severe drug issues, chose instead to adopt a policy based on public health rather than criminalization -- and have seen results in decreased number of addicts, charges brought against drug users and crime.
In 2001, Portugal became the first European country to decriminalize the use and possession of all illicit drugs, and met much criticism by those who believed it would lead to even greater drug use and the problems associated with it. But subsequent studies have shown that removing criminality, but combining this strategy with therapy, has reduced the burden on law enforcement and overall levels of problematic drug use.
Similar criticisms continue to be voiced in the U.S., though interest in alternative policies has grown, as seen in a California ballot initiative last November. Studies have projected that both taxation and the money saved from ineffective enforcement would bring billions to state and federal governments.
But the California initiative did fail, and despite evidence of the failure of the war on drugs, the Obama administration has continued its policies, increasing spending on interdiction and enforcement to record levels in dollars and percentage, according to the Associated Press. In 2010, they accounted for $10 billion of Obama's $15.5 billion budget for drug control. Although the administration has emphasized a "public health" approach, a White House spokesman immediately dismissed the report and the recommendations of the commission. "Making drugs more available -- as this report suggests -- will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe," said Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Marion Caspers-Merk, former State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health, believes this disparity is a primary obstacle to mobilizing support for drug policy reform. "There is a lot of political pressure that a policy mix is something that will not be accepted by a society that figures of addicted people as criminals," she said. Yet even members of the commission recognized that the chances of a true transformation of international drug policy are slim without the support of one of the world's strongest policy players.
"These are busy people," said Thorvald Stoltenberg of the lack of US representation at the meeting and relatively speaking on the commission. Stoltenberg sat on the panel as a former minister of Foreign Affairs for Norway and UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "The success of this to a large extent depends on US policy."
Gaviria was pessimistic at the prospect of US support. "It is difficult to have a sense that the US will move in a change of language and change of policy if they don't have debate," Gaviria said. "It makes it very difficult to look for alternatives."