On June 17, 1971 United States President Richard Nixon officially launched the “War on Drugs“. Forty years later the American government alone has spent between one and two and a half trillion dollars to combat drug users, dealers and manufacturers. Millions of otherwise innocent people have been incarcerated as a result.
Last week, The Global Commission on Drug Policy declared the global “war on drugs” to be a failure. The high-level international 19-member commission includes former heads of state, a business mogul and the current prime minister of Greece. In their report they called for a new approach to the current strategy of reducing drug abuse by strictly criminalizing drugs and incarcerating users.
By U.N. estimates, there are approximately 250 million users worldwide of drugs that are currently deemed illegal, with less than ten percent classified as “dependent”. There are also millions involved in the cultivation, production and distribution of drugs. To put this in perspective, it costs taxpayers about 50K to imprison someone for a year. If we were to lock up just the world’s drug users (let alone the pushers and cultivators) it would cost the global taxpayer 12.5 trillion dollarsâ€¦ annually.
So instead of a drug policy where victory means a cost of a little less than the entire American national debt (not to mention the detention of millions of non-violent, otherwise innocent civilians), The Global Commission on Drug Policy recommended the following measures:
- End criminalization of drug users “who do no harm to others” as well as low level farmers, couriers and “petty sellers”
- Experiment with legal regulation of drugs “to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens”
- Offer health and treatment services such as supervised use facilities and syringe access rather than “abusive practices carried out in the name of treatment such as forced detention”
- Abandon the ‘just say no’ approach to education in favor of “efforts grounded in credible information and prevention programs that focus on social skills and peer influences”
- Focus law enforcement efforts “not on reducing drug markets per se but rather on reducing their harms”
Some countries are already leading the pack in regards to drug law reform and the commission report said that decriminalization initiatives had not been complemented by a substantial spike in drug use in countries such as Australia, Portugal and the Netherlands.
Unfortunately on the other side of globe in North America, the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s recommendations have fallen on deaf ears or at least the ears of the politicians in power. With the election of the Conservative government last month in Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is intent on going in the complete opposite direction.
His tough on crime bills that are soon to be passed in the House of Commons will introduce mandatory minimum sentences and will result in more time served for drug offenders. Harper has also tried for years to close Insight, The Vancouver safe injection site. Insight offers the health and treatment services that the commission said should be offered worldwide.
Meanwhile the United States and Mexico were quick to reject the high-profile report. In separate statements, the White House stated that the war on drugs was being won and that drug use has been cut in half since the 1970s (which I attribute to the change in our culture assuming their numbers are even accurate). I presume these are the same people who’ll tell you the US won the war in Vietnam.
The Mexican Government also indicated that they would not back away from current strategies in the war on drugs, which in Mexico has resulted in more than 38 000 deaths in 4 1/2 years and is backed by more than $1 billion in US aid under the Merida Initiative.
There has never been a louder voice for drug reform since we first began the prohibition of drugs more than a hundred years ago. Hopefully this report doesn’t get lost on the rest of the world. If just a few countries adopt these bold initiatives, I’m almost certain that these winds of change will spread to other parts of the world.
As for North America, nothing short of dissent and mass protests will do, even then it has become apparent in my lifetime that our politicians refuse to learn from past mistakes. We as always are the ones who must show them the error of their ways, or at least we have to tryâ€¦
The 19-member commission included former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, the former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, writers Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa and British business mogul Richard Branson.
You can follow Quiet Mike on Twitter at @MWeishar