World Leaders from 20 Nations Explain How to Dig Our Way Out of the Devastating War on Drugs


The global war on drugs is the reason the US holds a quarter of the world’s prisoners but accounts for just five percent of the population. It is the reason millions of innocent people in Latin America have been killed and displaced by violent, powerful cartels. It is the reason marijuana remains illegal and demonized while science and reason tell us it's safer than alcohol and has powerful medical value.

There are many disturbing characteristics of the war on drugs, but the worst is probably the fact that more than 40 years of dumping extreme amounts of money and law enforcement into criminalizing drugs has been ineffective. The use and distribution of illegal drugs remains steady, or climbing, worldwide. The war on drugs has failed

For this reason, past and present leaders from 20 nations gathered in New York City on September 9 to release a new report calling for changes in global drug policy. The leaders make up the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Among the long list of members are former US Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the former presidents or prime ministers of Brazil, Switzerland, Colombia, Chile, Portugal, Poland, Greece and Mexico. Their reportTaking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Workcalls for the decriminalization of all drug use and possession, and the legalized regulation of now-illegal drug markets. It calls for putting public health and human rights ahead of crackdowns and law enforcement. 

Former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso spoke first at the conference, highlighting the “enormous” waste of money and resources that have gone into the failed global drug war. He estimated the monetary costs to be around $100 billion each year, while rates of drug use and dealing remain steady.

“In Colombia, for instance, the amount of cocaine especially is almost the same over time,” he said. “For each… drug lord who is killed, there are several others to replace, because the market is so favorable.”

Since it first met in 2011 the commission’s work has created a global context for a debate in which even some current  presidents are beginning to speak out against prohibition. Uruguayan president José “Pepe” Mujica was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in February for his decision to legalize marijuana nationally in order to combat cartels.

The commission's initial report in 2011 took the drug policy debate global, calling into question the effectiveness of drug prohibition.

“We could not imagine ... the consequence, not of what we did, but of the transformations that have since occurred around the globe,” Cardoso said.

The new report was compiled in anticipation of a 2016 United Nations meeting that will reassess both global drug control policies and policies within individual nations (the General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, or UNGASS).

The report's authors point out that the upcoming UNGASS meeting is an “unprecedented opportunity to review and re-direct national drug control policies and the future of the global drug control regime." They urge UN diplomats to consider human health first and foremost for the future of drug policy:

“... the UN global drug control regime has the ‘health and welfare of mankind’ as its ultimate goal. But overwhelming evidence points to not just the failure of the regime to attain its stated goals but also the horrific unintended consequences of punitive and prohibitionist laws and policies.”

The beginning of the report details the failure of the drug war, which continues to waste hundreds of billions of dollars annually, criminalizes drug users and fails to address the root causes of drug abuse. 

Below are six examples from the report of how the war on drugs has failed: 

1. A Failure on Its Own Terms

The international community is further than ever from realizing a "drug-free world." Global drug production, supply and use continue to rise despite increasing resources being directed toward enforcement. Read more

2. Threatening Public Health and Safety

Punitive drug law enforcement fuels crime and maximizes the health risks associated with drug use, especially among the most vulnerable. This is because drug production, shipment and retail are left in the hands of organized criminals, and people who use drugs are criminalized, rather than provided with assistance. Read more

3. Undermining Human Rights, Fostering Discrimination

Punitive approaches to drug policy are severely undermining human rights in every region of the world. They lead to the erosion of civil liberties and fair trial standards, the stigmatization of individuals and groups—particularly women, young people, and ethnic minorities—and the imposition of abusive and inhumane punishments. Read more

4. Fueling Crime and Enriching Criminals

Rather than reduce crime, enforcement-based drug policy actively fuels it. Spiraling illicit drug prices provide a profit motive for criminal groups to enter the trade, and drive some people who are dependent on drugs to commit crime in order to fund their use. Read more

5. Undermining Development and Security, Fueling Conflict

Criminal drug producers and traffickers thrive in fragile, conflict-affected and underdeveloped regions, where vulnerable populations are easily exploited. The corruption, violence, and instability generated by unregulated drug markets are widely recognized as a threat to both security and development. Read more

6. Wasting Billions, Undermining Economies

Tens of billions are spent on drug law enforcement every year. And while good for the defense industry, there are disastrous secondary costs, both financial and social. Read more

The report lists experiments in new, more humanitarian drug policies that are going well around the world, and encourages the UN to use them as templates for new policies.

Portugal is probably the most overt example of a successful drug policy shift. Since 1991 it decriminalized the use and possession of all drugs. Instead of putting users in jail for their addictions and vices, the nation offers free health assistance to anyone caught using illegal drugs. Sanctions and fines can apply in certain cases, but not incarceration. The new policy has been powerfully effective and Portugal has seen the use of drugs, especially among young people, plummet.

The Global Commission’s new report recommends the following steps for future drug policy:

  • Putting health and community safety first requires a fundamental reorientation of policy priorities and resources, from failed punitive enforcement to proven health and social interventions. Read more
  • Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession – and stop imposing “compulsory treatment” on people whose only offense is drug use or possession. Read more
  • Focus on reducing the power of criminal organizations as well as the violence and insecurity that result from their competition with both one another and the state. Read more
  • Take advantage of the opportunity presented by the upcoming UNGASS in 2016 to reform the global drug policy regime. Read more
  • Ensure equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medications for pain. Read more
  • Rely on alternatives to incarceration for non-violent, low-level participants in illicit drug markets such as farmers, couriers and others involved in the production, transport and sale of illicit drugs. Read more
  • Allow and encourage diverse experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs, beginning with but not limited to cannabis, coca leaf and certain novel psychoactive substances. Read more

Watch the Global Commission on Drug Policy's  discussion of their report:


For a weekly roundup of drugs news, sign up for AlterNet's Drugs Newsletter here. 

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