Kofi Annan, George Shultz say drug war a failure

A new report calls the 'war on drugs' a failure. The claim isn't new, but hearing it from an ex-UN head and a former US secretary of State adds new weight to the criticism.

Mark Wessels/Reuters
Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan speaks at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 5.

It used to be easier to keep track of the various players in the “war on drugs.”

There were “northern” consumers and “southern” producers and smugglers.

But now the roles are beginning to merge. The US is still the biggest market for illegal drugs, but drug use across the Americas is up. An overwhelming portion of the violence is in Mexico, but it is getting uncomfortably close to the US doorstep.

The picture of a drug war that's witnessed the simultaneous geographic spread of violence and use is at the heart of a report released Thursday by the Global Commission on Drug Policy that urges experiments with legalization and regulation as a way to reduce violence. “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world,” the report states.

The argument that criminalization has failed isn't new. But the names backing the report go far beyond the drug reform “usual suspects." Among the 19 members of the commission are former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and billionaire Richard Branson.

“They are not saying anything new,” says Jorge Hernández Tinajero, the president of Cupihd, a group in Mexico that disseminates information about drug policies. “But the people are new. These are powerful people.”

“Not the usual suspects,” agrees Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America and expert on US drug policy.

Helping hand

The commission recommends that countries help, rather than incarcerate, drug users who do not hurt others and focus on punishing violent organized crime instead. "Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won," their report says. (The full report is here.)

It urges governments to experiment with regulating a legal drug market, and points to successes in Europe, such as Portugal, to make its case.

The report builds on work by a Latin American commission in 2009 headed by the former presidents from Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, which also concluded that the "war on drugs" had failed, as has prohibition.

The US dismissed the report. “The bottom line is that balanced drug control efforts are making a big difference,” Rafael Lemaitre, communications director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement.

Many in Latin America have long faulted the US government for not paying enough attention to drug consumption, instead focusing on the security side of the issue. Now such countries are starting to deal with their own scourge of drug use. “The dichotomy is false…There is growth in the use of both cocaine and heroin in the so-called developing world,” says Bruce Bagley, a drug-trafficking expert at the University of Miami.

In that way, leaders from traditional consuming and producing countries are getting on the same page in certain respects, underlined by the commission report signed by leaders from across the globe. Mr. Bagley supports the report as another message in changing the paradigm, but he says it has a “middle class” focus that fails to provide alternatives for coca producers in Bolivia or poppy growers in Afghanistan who also play critical role in the chain.

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