The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former world leaders call for nations to decriminalize drug use and experiment with legalization

The Sea of Green Farms growing facility in Seattle, which the report describes as one of the world’s first jurisdictions to legally regulate a non-medical marijuana market. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)

Drug use should be decriminalized and governments should experiment with drug legalization and regulation, a group of former world leaders argues in a new report published on Monday night.

The recommendations from the Global Commission on Drug Policy reflect the views of the former leaders of some of the countries hardest hit by the illegal drug trade. In the report, they strongly argue that a costly global war on drugs has not only failed but threatens public health, fosters discrimination and fuels the very crime and violence it seeks to prevent.

“The facts speak for themselves. It is time to change course,” former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, one of the commissioners, says in a statement. “We need drug policies informed by evidence of what actually works, rather than policies that criminalize drug use while failing to provide access to effective prevention or treatment. This has led not only to overcrowded jails but also to severe health and social problems.”

The group’s other commissioners include George Shultz, former secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, billionaire Richard Branson and the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Portugal, Switzerland and Poland. They plan to meet on Tuesday afternoon with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson.

The report, a follow-up on a 2011 report that came to similar conclusions, offers several policy recommendations for reform. For one, it calls for decriminalization of drug use and possession in response to policies that disproportionately affect certain segments of populations. In the United States, for example, blacks have been found to be disproportionately arrested over marijuana use. The report also calls for governments to encourage regulatory experiments in legalization, such as those with marijuana in Colorado and Washington. Such experiments, the commission argues, should start with but not be limited to cannabis, coca leaves and other psychoactive substances.

Health and community safety should be prioritized and government-ensured equal access to medicines, especially opiate-based pain medication, they argue. Low-level, non-violent participants in the drug trade should not be sent to prison, they argue, but dealt with in some alternative way. And because policies focused on sapping the power of criminal organizations often backfire or simply displace the market, the goal should be disrupting trade and violence rather than eradicating the market altogether. Finally, the authors argue, governments should use a 2016 special United Nations session on drugs as a springboard for reform.

“We agree that we should use science-based approaches, rely on alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders, and ensure access to pain medications,” says Cameron Hardesty, spokeswoman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Our goals are not so dissimilar from the goals of the Global Commission. However, we disagree that legalization of drugs will make people healthier and communities safer. Our experience with the tobacco and alcohol industries show that commercialization efforts rely upon increasing, not decreasing use, which in turn increases the harm associated with the use of tobacco and alcohol. In fact, if we take Big Tobacco as prologue, we can predict that that approach is likely to cause an entirely new set of problems.”

The commissioners, however, argue that the problems created by global drug policy over the past five decades have been so severe that bold action is needed.

“After more than half a century of this punitive approach, there is now overwhelming evidence that it has not only failed to achieve its own objectives, but has also generated serious social and health problems,” they write. “If governments are genuinely committed to safeguarding the safety, health, and human rights of their citizens, they must urgently adopt new approaches.”

Perhaps most relevant of the report’s recommendations to the ongoing policy debate in the United States, however, is its call on governments to regulate drug markets in order to control them.

“There is a public health imperative to legally regulate drugs not because they are safe, but precisely because they can be dangerous and pose serious risks,” the report’s authors write. “… Putting accountable governments and regulatory bodies in control of this market can significantly reduce these risks.”

Colorado and Washington are prime examples of such experiments in regulation. The states are the first jurisdictions in the world to establish legally regulated non-medical markets for marijuana, according to the report, and could soon be joined by Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., if voters in those areas approve legalization this fall. While it’s too early to judge their success, the experiments will likely have major implications for national policy at home and abroad, depending on the consequences.

In the report, the authors include the following chart to convey their argument about blanket drug prohibition. It presents a spectrum of regulatory approaches to drug use, with full prohibition at one end and unfettered legalization at the other.

“Both of these options are characterized by an absence of regulation, with governments essentially forfeiting control of the drug trade,” the authors write. In the absence of regulation, the risk of social and individual harm runs high.

The report positions “responsible legal regulation” as the sensible middle ground, although opponents of relaxed drug laws take issue with the way in which proponents of reform often characterize the debate. Legalization is not the only alternative to the war on drugs, they say.

“Drug policy is a mixed bag: some things have worked, some things have not worked, some things have been counterproductive,” says Dr. David Murray, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute Center for Substance Abuse and former chief scientist at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George W. Bush. Just because past policy has produced imperfect results, does not mean legalization is the only option.

“What is so disappointing is that some very well meaning former officials have bought into a false dichotomy between a war on drugs and legalization,” Kevin Sabet, who served in the ONDCP in stints during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations and co-founded Project SAM, a group opposed to legalization, said in an e-mail.

From a practical standpoint, the commissioners underscore that experimentation will be necessary in order to move from a drug war mind-set to a more pragmatic drug control policy. For instance, Colorado and Washington recently legalized recreational cannabis use, with other states considering following suit this fall.

It will be instructive to compare outcomes in these U.S. states with the situation in Uruguay, which legalized cannabis last year. “The Uruguayan model involves a greater level of government control than the more commercial models in the US states of Washington and Colorado,” the authors write. “Sales are permitted only via licensed pharmacies, to registered adult Uruguayan residents – at prices set by the new regulatory body.”

The commission is a nonprofit supported by five organizations: the foundation of former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Igarapé Institute, the Kofi Annan Foundation, billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and Richard Branson, who provided support through Virgin Unite, the nonprofit foundation of the Virgin Group.