COMMENTARY: Global drugs war strategy has failed: Overhaul it

By Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders
Sir Ronald Sanders

The Global Commission on drugs has declared that “the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”.

The members of this Commission include four former Heads of Government, one serving Prime Minister and a former Secretary-General of the United Nations.  Former high serving officials of US governments are also among the Commissioners.  They include Paul Volcker, former head of the Federal Reserve; and George Shultz, former Secretary of State.

The Commission issued its report earlier this month, and it prompted an immediate reaction from former US President Jimmy Carter who stated that “to make drug policies more humane and more effective, the American government should support and enact the reforms laid out by the Global Commission on Drug Policy”. 

Carter was correct to single out his country’s government.  For, no other government has done more to lock the world into a so-called “war on drugs” that has patently failed. Through its infamous annual International Narcotics Control Report, by which the US grades countries by US criteria and certifies them for US assistance, the US has bullied countries all over the world into complying with US dictates whether they make sense or not.

For a long time, many of the US requirements have been wrong for many regions of the world – including the Caribbean.  Complying with regimes devised by the US, Caribbean jails are full of mostly young people who ought not to be there, but who have fallen afoul of the law because unemployment in their countries is high and the drug trade, because of its illegality, pays well.

If marijuana production, distribution and sales were legalised and regulated – like alcohol which is far more addictive and dangerous – far fewer people would be in jails, the police would be able to concentrate scarce resources on protecting the public, governments would earn steady revenue, and a serious campaign to stop marijuana use voluntarily could be launched.  Similar campaigns have been launched worldwide against smoking tobacco and consuming alcohol.

Of course, the US government was also in the forefront of pushing the United Nations to adopt the Convention on Narcotic Drugs.  It was – and remains – an imposition of a completely US government-centric position on the rest of the world.  Even within the US, the Convention commands no great support outside of the corridors of government departments.  But, it succeeded in bending the rest of the world to US will.  Over the last 50 years, all countries have had to adopt the same rigid approach to drug policy – the same laws, and the same tough approach to their enforcement.

Now, however, the Global Commission on Drugs has declared that: “Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed”.

The Commission makes the point that, “vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption”.

While the Commission accepts that it is a reasonable starting point that all governments should work together to tackle drug markets and related problems, it emphasizes that “the idea of shared responsibility has too often become a straitjacket that inhibits policy development and experimentation”.   It offers the example, which it says may be described as ‘drug control imperialism’, of Bolivia.  The government there proposed to remove the practice of coca leaf chewing from the sections of the 1961 Convention that prohibit all non-medical uses.  However, despite the fact that successive studies have shown that the indigenous practice of coca leaf chewing is associated with none of the harms of international cocaine markets, and that a clear majority of the Bolivian population (and neighbouring countries) support this change, the US has formally objected to the amendment.

The US has objected to the government of Bolivia’s proposal because it can do so, and by doing so, intimidate Bolivia away from what that country’s authorities considered sensible.  It is the same reason why Caribbean governments have slavishly stayed with the US position – despite a major study that shows that decriminalization of marijuana would make for less crime and better regulation.  They are simply scared of being “certified” by the US as non-cooperative or as a promoter of drugs.  So, the US failed policies continue.

But, not so in parts of Europe:  Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland in particular. The Commission report also shows that in all three of these countries where laws were relaxed and provision made to treat addicts as “patients” and “Victims” rather than criminals, drug use declined as did involvement in trafficking.

The US has designed its drug policy on a basis of stopping supply and doing little about demand except to outlaw it.  And, this is the regime that they impose on as many countries as they can.  But, as the Commission says: “The idea that the international drug control system is immutable, and that any amendment – however reasonable or slight – is a threat to the integrity of the entire system, is short-sighted.   National governments must be enabled to exercise the freedom to experiment with responses more suited to their circumstances. This analysis and exchange of experiences is a crucial element of the process of learning about the relative effectiveness of different approaches, but the belief that we all need to have exactly the same laws, restrictions and programs has been an unhelpful restriction”.

Caribbean governments should accept the advice given to the US government by former President Jimmy Carter and enact the reforms recommended by the Commission.  They could begin by establishing a Group to analyse the peculiar circumstances of the region using the Commission’s report as a basis for their work.  Drug trafficking and its attendant trafficking in weapons, drug addiction, overcrowded prisons – all flow from declining economic circumstances and the money associated with illegal drugs.  Then, collectively, they need to advance their cause in the UN; many others will join them.

At the moment, the existing drugs strategy suits the drug traffickers, just as the alcohol prohibition laws in the US from 1920 to 1933 suited the alcohol traffickers.  

Sanders is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat; 

 Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com
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