While the international news has been one depressing event after another this summer, there’s been an encouraging shift in one of the most important issues facing the world: the battle against illegal drugs. It’s worth remembering that the death toll from the Mexican drug war over the past seven years is almost equal to the number of people who have died in Syria’s ongoing civil war.
The latest hopeful move involves the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s 2014 report, which came out on Sept. 9. The commission’s members read like a Rolodex of elder statesmen, including former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan; former Latin American Presidents like Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico; former U.S. officials like ex-Secretary of State George Shultz; and businessmen and intellectuals like Virgin megamogul Richard Branson and novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.
That makes their conclusion all the more radical. The commission has already called for an end to the “war on drugs” as well as some form of marijuana legalization. But with the 2014 report, it has written a much more explicit condemnation of the failed policy of the past and has gone much further in its recommendations for the future.
The commission’s report lambasts the current situation, taking full aim at international drug bureaucracies: “Traditional goals and measures—such as hectares of illicit crops eradicated, amounts of drugs seized and number of people arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug-law violations—have failed to produce positive outcomes. Far more important are goals and measures that focus on reducing both drug-related harms … as well as prohibition-related harms … Spending on counterproductive enforcement measures should be ended, while proven prevention, harm reduction and treatment measures are scaled up to meet needs.”
As more and more countries (and states within the U.S.) move toward different degrees of marijuana legalization, it becomes increasingly crucial for this movement to keep adding to its momentum. With the world gearing up for a special session of the U.N. General Assembly on drugs in 2016, it’s all the more important for an international consensus to emerge from the individual changes being implemented on a country-by-country basis.
But the commission’s boldest recommendation goes even further. Most proponents of marijuana decriminalization—whether limited to individual possession and consumption, or extended to production and sales—have always known, deep down inside, that their arguments are equally applicable to other illegal drugs.
Heroin and cocaine, for instance, appear scarier to the general public than marijuana and pose a greater health threat in the short and long term. But that doesn’t change the fact that drugs are an individual, private matter, or that the costs of prohibition are greater than any alternative. The war on drugs has failed—and that includes all drugs, not just marijuana.
The commission is unabashed about this fact, laying to rest the useful but ultimately unsustainable hypocrisy about drugs that many of us have clung to. Its report directly suggests that the world should “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 … New experiments are needed in allowing legal but restricted access to drugs that are now only available illegally.”
By referring to drugs in general, and no longer specifically to marijuana—and by directly mentioning coca leaf and other harder substances—the members of the commission have taken a great step forward. As other global notables like Jimmy Carter, Vicente Fox of Mexico and Felipe González of Spain join in, the momentum for legalization will continue to mount. It’s long past time that we ended this losing war, and the Global Commission should be congratulated for its bold stance. Radical change is never easy.
Castañeda, a former Foreign Minister of Mexico, is a global distinguished professor at New York University
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