Jun 2, 2011

The failure of the war on drugs – high level commission’s report

The Global Commission on Drug Policy was founded to build on the successful experience of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy convened by former presidents Cardoso of

Richard Farmer

Crikey political commentator

The Global Commission on Drug Policy was founded to build on the successful experience of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy convened by former presidents Cardoso of Brazil, Gaviria of Colombia and Zedillo of Mexico. Persuaded that the association between drug trade, violence and corruption was a threat to democracy in Latin America, the Commission reviewed the current ‘war on drugs’ policies and opened a public debate about an issue that tends to be surrounded by fear and misinformation.

Its goals are to:

» review the basic assumption, effectiveness and consequences of the ‘war on drugs’ approach
» evaluate the risks and benefits of different national responses to the drug problem
» develop actionable, evidence-based recommendations for constructive legal and drug policy reform

The members of the Commission, which has just released its report are:

» Asma Jahangir
– human rights activist, former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Executions, Pakistan

» Carlos Fuentes
– writer and public intellectual, Mexico

» César Gaviria
– former President of Colômbia

» Ernesto Zedillo
– former President of México

» Fernando Henrique Cardoso
– former President of Brazil (chair)

» George Papandreou
– Prime Minister of Greece

» George Shultz
– former Secretary of State, United States (honorary chair)

» Javier Solana
– former European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Spain

» John Whitehead
– banker and civil servant, chair of the World Trade Center Memorial, United States

» Kofi Annan
– former Secretary General of the United Nations, Ghana

» Louise Arbour
– former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, president of the International Crisis Group, Canada

» Maria Cattaui
– Member of the Board, Petroplus Holdings; former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce, Switzerland

» Marion Caspers-Merk
– former State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health, Germany

» Mario Vargas Llosa
– writer and public intellectual, Peru

» Michel Kazatchkine
– executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, France

» Paul Volcker
– former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve and of the Economic Recovery Board, US

» Richard Branson
– entrepreneur, advocate for social causes, founder of the Virgin Group, cofounder of The Elders, United Kingdom

» Ruth Dreifuss
– former President of Switzerland and Minister of Home Affairs

» Thorvald Stoltenberg
– former Minister of Foreign Affairs and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Norway

The Executive Summary of the group’s report says:

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.

Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers. Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.

Our principles and recommendations can be summarized as follows:

End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. Challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence.

Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens. This recommendation applies especially to cannabis, but we also encourage other experiments in decriminalization and legal regulation that can accomplish these objectives and provide models for others.

Offer health and treatment services to those in need. Ensure that a variety of treatment modalities are available, including not just methadone and buprenorphine treatment but also the heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada. Implement syringe access and other harm reduction measures that have proven effective in reducing transmission of HIV and other blood-borne infections as well as fatal overdoses. Respect the human rights of people who use drugs. Abolish abusive practices carried out in the name of treatment – such as forced detention, forced labor, and physical or psychological abuse – that contravene human rights standards and norms or that remove the right to self-determination.

Apply much the same principles and policies stated above to people involved in the lower ends of illegal drug markets, such as farmers, couriers and petty sellers. Many are themselves victims of violence and intimidation or are drug dependent. Arresting and incarcerating tens of millions of these people in recent decades has filled prisons and destroyed lives and families without reducing the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations. There appears to be almost no limit to the number of people willing to engage in such activities to better their lives, provide for their families, or otherwise escape poverty. Drug control resources are better directed elsewhere.

Invest in activities that can both prevent young people from taking drugs in the first place and also prevent those who do use drugs from developing more serious problems. Eschew simplistic ‘just say no’ messages and ‘zero tolerance’ policies in favor of educational efforts grounded in credible information and prevention programs that focus on social skills and peer influences. The most successful prevention efforts may be those targeted at specific at-risk groups.

Focus repressive actions on violent criminal organizations, but do so in ways that undermine their power and reach while prioritizing the reduction of violence and intimidation. Law enforcement efforts should focus not on reducing drug markets per se but rather on reducing their harms to individuals, communities and national security.

Begin the transformation of the global drug prohibition regime. Replace drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights – and adopt appropriate criteria for their evaluation. Review the scheduling of drugs that has resulted in obvious anomalies like the flawed categorization of cannabis, coca leaf and MDMA. Ensure that the international conventions are interpreted and/or revised to accommodate robust experimentation with harm reduction, decriminalization and legal regulatory policies.

Break the taboo on debate and reform.

The time for action is now.

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8 thoughts on “The failure of the war on drugs – high level commission’s report

  1. Gavin R. Putland

    I’ve posted a 3rd edition of The universally unconstitutional war on drugs.

  2. littlbit

    Steven, obama was a drug user, Bush was a drug user, Gillard was a drug user, there are thousands of men and women in governments world wide who used all sorts of drugs during their college days, and most used cannabis, they all made it into high paying jobs, completed university/college, and have had very successful lives.

    Its not the drugs that cause the problem its the laws. One more thing that really angers me about this is Cannabis has been proved to cure cancers all of them, facts that the US Government are now just admitting, however they have all known since 1947, proved again in the 60’s and in the past 10 years has been shown to cure many more illness and save lives.

    Could it be that the multi trillion cancer industry is too big and a cure would threaten the economy just like letting banks fail during a financial cricis? Just a thought.

  3. littlbit

    End the war and bring peace to our streets.

    Legalise – Educate – Regulate – Tax

    If you make the price out of people reach then you give the power to the drug barrons, the very same has already happened to tobacco, the underground industry has already taken over and the more tobacco costs legally, the bigger the underground market becomes.

    Prohibition either by tax or law, has never and will never work.

  4. westral

    I’ve always thought the problem was that people want to use drugs and are willing to pay a high price to get what they want. The poor farmer in the third world sees supplying drugs as a way to feed his family. If the trade was made government to government it would reduce the violence associated with the trade.

  5. Steven

    The sad thing is, nearly all of the members were once in positions of power where they could have directly influenced public policy in this area. Yet they did nothing.

  6. AR

    Ensure that a variety of treatment modalities are available, including not just methadone and buprenorphine treatment but also the heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada.
    I find it passing strange that a memory hole seems to have engulfed the fact that, until 1969, heroin (and cocaine and tincture of cannabis) were available on prescription from any GP in the UK. It was severely restricted (and then ended in 1971) because of the continuing weakness of Sterling requiring and IMF loan which the US would not approve unless that medical policy was stopped.

  7. Joe Lemmings Brother

    OMG! Who would have thought it?!?!?!?

    Billions of dollars spent yearly in the War On (Some) Drugs and yet they are more plentiful and cheaper than ever.

    Never mind, we’ll spend even more on failed policy, because, as everyone knows, when the outcomes aren’t as expected the only course of action is to go even harder!

  8. Gavin R. Putland

    The universally unconstitutional war on drugs (2nd Ed.)

    The reversal of the onus of proof in drug-possession cases is incompatible with the rule of law and is therefore unconstitutional in all jurisdictions.

    In the “war on drugs”, the presumption of innocence is not collateral damage. It is a deliberate target: if other people plant drugs on you (e.g. to avoid being busted themselves), you must prove that the drugs were planted (which you can’t). This situation is manifestly incompatible with the rule of law, because the power to convict — the most fearsome of all government powers — is effectively taken from the courts and given to those who are willing to plant evidence. There is no clearer case of a “government of laws” being usurped by a “government of men”.

    The purported reversal of the onus of proof, being contrary to the rule of law, is unconstitutional for three reasons:

    First, the mere existence of a constitution, written or unwritten, presupposes the rule of law and therefore invalidates any legislation or judicial precedent incompatible with the rule of law.

    Second, the mere existence of a court presupposes the rule of law and therefore precludes the court from entertaining any proposition incompatible with the rule of law.

    Third, the legislative power is limited to the making of law, which by definition must be compatible with the rule of law. Legislative provisions purporting to reverse the onus of proof, being incompatible with the rule of law, are not law and are therefore beyond the legislative power.

    (Wherever there is an overriding prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, there is a fourth reason, namely that the reversal of the onus of proof foreseeably leads to punishment of innocent people, such punishment being cruel and unusual by reason of their innocence.)

    Therefore, if you are on the jury in the trial of a person charged with possession of a prohibited drug — especially if that possession is construed as trafficking — and if you are told that the “law” requires the defendant to prove that the possession was unwitting, it is your civic duty to uphold the real law: put the onus of proof back where it belongs (on the prosecution), raise it to the proper standard (beyond reasonable doubt), and hand down a verdict on that basis. If the verdict is “Not Guilty”, the acquittal is binding and no further action can be taken against the defendant — or the jurors.

    Defenders of the status quo will object that when drugs are found in homes, vehicles, baggage, or outer clothing, the possibility of innocent possession is always there. From this they conclude that the accused must always be convicted. The correct conclusion is that the accused must always be acquitted. Defenders of the status quo take the position that if the State can’t get the outcome it wants without reversing the onus of proof, then the onus of proof must be reversed. The correct position is that if the State can’t get the outcome it wants without reversing the onus of proof, then the State must not get the outcome it wants.

    How then shall the drug pushers be defeated? Not by starving their business model, but by constipating it.

    To discourage use of drugs, we need retail (“street”) prices to be as high as possible. To discourage trafficking in drugs, we need upstream (“wholesale”) prices to be as low as possible, so that concealable quantities are not valuable enough to be worth trafficking. A bottleneck in the supply chain — e.g. due to law enforcement — raises prices downstream and lowers prices upstream. Therefore law enforcement should be concentrated on the retailers.

    To avoid sending the wrong price signals, enforcement further upstream in the supply chain should be just strong enough to maintain the need for concealment: the risk of confiscation, or of prosecution if caught in the act of selling, is enough; the risk of prosecution for mere possession is too much. To encourage the retail customers (junkies) to inform on the retailers, the customers must not be at risk of prosecution for possession or purchasing. When every retail customer is a potential informer with immunity from prosecution, nobody will want to be a retailer. There’s your “bottleneck”.

    To meet these requirements, the supply of prohibited drugs should remain an indictable offence, but possession or purchasing of any quantity should be a summary offence punishable solely by confiscation of the contraband, with no conviction recorded (so that prosecution would be possible in theory but pointless in practice).

    The same arrangement would neatly solve the problem of unwitting possession. If the drugs are yours, confiscation involves a loss. If they’re not, it doesn’t. Either way, justice is done. And notice — especially if you’re a politician — that the solution does not amount to legalisation or an end to prohibition.

    The legislators could further strengthen the deterrent against retailing by creating an offence of being a “habitual” supplier of drugs, so that a seller could be convicted on the evidence of a large number of buyers, each of whom was the sole witness to a sale, without the need for two witnesses to any particular sale.

    Thus it is not helpful to prosecute people for possession, let alone to reverse the onus of proof.

    But of course the powers that be won’t see it that way — because they won’t want to pay compensation to people who have been unconstitutionally “convicted”, and perhaps also because they want the drug trade to remain viable so that they can keep scoring political points by pretending to fight it.

    So, if you are charged with possession, and if the prosecution can’t prove that your possession was voluntary and you can’t prove that it wasn’t, you should invoke the “rule of law” defences (and, if applicable, the “cruel and unusual punishment” defence). As the prosecution won’t want those points of law to be tested in court, threatening to test them might persuade the prosecution to back off.

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