The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Time to decriminalize drugs? A global panel says yes.

Police raid a house where gang members are believed to be residing in the Barrio Abajo district of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Sean Sutton/Panos Pictures)
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The "war on drugs" has never been limited to one particular country: Governments all over the world have attempted to destroy drug-dealing networks and increase penalties for drug-related offenses.

But have those countries followed the wrong lead? According to an international committee under the helm of Johns Hopkins University and medical journal the Lancet, the answer is yes.

"The global war on drugs has harmed public health, human rights and development," said commissioner Chris Beyrer, an epidemiology professor at Johns Hopkins's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "It's time for us to rethink our approach to global drug policies, and put scientific evidence and public health at the heart of drug policy discussions."

Beyrer is among the authors of a new report published last week that comes ahead of a U.N. summit on the issue in April. The commission said it reached its conclusion based on publicly accessible data and analysis on drug-related violence and incarceration, for instance.

"The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production and trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national drug laws, but these policies are based on ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded," Beyrer said.

In the report, the international commission urged governments to decriminalize "minor and non-violent drug use, possession and petty sale; enactment of policies that reduce violence and discrimination in drug policing," among other things.

Eventually, such measures could lead to decreases in drug-related violence worldwide, the authors suggest. They refer to data from Central America and Mexico, where homicides increased following military and police action taken against drug trafficking. "This violence has led to a surge of Central American refugees crossing the United States’ southern border," the report states.

Other researchers and prominent voices have also called for more lenient drug laws. On March 24, several former heads of state and business leaders published essays that reached a similar conclusion. The authors include the former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Nigeria. Most of the essays focus on the vast costs of the "war on drugs" and its few positive impacts, according to the authors.

In one of the essays, Ernesto Zedillo, a former president of Mexico, argues that “decriminalising consumption without taking away from organised crime the provision of the supply of drugs would be counterproductive."

However, despite the prominent support for an end of the "war on drugs," it is considered unlikely that the upcoming U.N. summit will change much about current policies. Harsh approaches toward drug dealing and consumption may already be too deeply entrenched in many societies.

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