THE BLOG

The Tide Is Turning

The Beckley Foundation, in association with the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Virgin Unite, Avaaz and Sundog Pictures, has launched a global grassroots campaign to call for an end to the War on Drugs. The campaign's website, www.breakingthetaboo.com, aims to gather over 1 million signatures from global citizens calling on governments and the UN to change their drug policies. The petition is to be presented to Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General.

The campaign features a new documentary, Breaking the Taboo, narrated by Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman and co-directed by my son, Cosmo Feilding Mellen. The film follows the Global Commission on a mission to break the political taboo on drugs and find a more humane solution to the problem. It charts the U.S.-led descent into a War on Drugs over four decades ago and the subsequent devastation in places like Latin America, Afghanistan and the United States. It lays out the causes and unintended consequences of the War on Drugs, and explores the solutions that are already available to us. Colombian ambassador Mauricio Rodriguez calls Breaking the Taboo "the best description of the terrible problems and possible solutions related to drugs that I have seen in the past 30 years."

As Bill Clinton says in the film -- after candidly admitting that his own efforts in Plan Colombia did not work -- "If all you do is try to find a police or military solution to the problem, a lot of people die and it doesn't solve the problem." From Escobar's Medellin cartel to the Taliban's poppy fields, the War on Drugs has consistently punished the poor, enriched the criminals, endangered democracy and done nothing to curb the increasing prevalence of drug use around the world.

In terms of drug policy reform, this really is a time like no other. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, and initiatives like the Beckley Foundation's Public Letter -- signed by around 70 of the world's most respected and influential figures, including 9 presidents, 12 Nobel Prizewinners, and celebrities like Yoko Ono, Noam Chomsky, Sting, Sean Parker and Sir Richard Branson -- are rapidly making drug policy a subject that politicians can raise without the stigma that has traditionally accompanied any mention of the "d-word."

The foundations for change have been laid. And Latin America seems ready to build upon them. For decades, this region has borne the brunt of the War on Drugs, thanks to its proximity with the U.S., the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs and simultaneously the most vocal supporter of their prohibition. But now Latin American leaders finally seem ready to take the situation into their own hands.

The wave of reform is swelling, as President Pérez of Guatemala and President Santos of Colombia -- both signatories of the Beckley Public Letter -- have been joined by leaders from Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Argentina in calling for a new approach to the problem. I, along with the Beckley Foundation, am privileged to be working closely with President Pérez and his government on drug policy reform; we recently sent a Beckley representative as part of the Guatemalan delegation to the Organization of American States' drug control summit in Costa Rica. At this year's Summit of the Americas, attended by President Obama, it was declared for the first time in history that exploring alternative solutions to the drug problem would become part of the official regional agenda. And it is looking increasingly likely that drug policy will be the platform from which a united Latin America will once and for all establish its independence from its domineering northern neighbor on the world stage.

Yet even these developments have been eclipsed in recent weeks by another extraordinary twist in the tale. The popular vote to legalize and regulate marijuana for recreational use in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington State is not just another crack in the edifice, it blows the prohibitionist house wide open. The referenda turn the U.S. into a two-headed Janus, with the Federal authorities being the leading champion of a World War on Drugs, even as two states simultaneously allow the most prevalent illegal drug to be sold, bought and taxed in an open, legally regulated market. Why should tens of thousands of people in Mexico and Guatemala continue to die in the name of a war on which two U.S. states have turned their back? As the Beckley Foundation's Global Cannabis Commission reported in 2008, if you remove marijuana from the list of banned substances, there is very little left to fight against: since marijuana accounts for over ¾ of illicit drug use, we would then be talking about 1 percent of the world's population using illegal drugs rather than today's 4-5 percent. When we consider that the UN estimates that 90 percent of drug use is not problematic, the figure drops to only 0.1 percent. Is that really enough users to warrant a $2.5 trillion-dollar war?

This is the beauty of democracy. The people have spoken and it is the politicians' duty to follow. Colorado and Washington State show us that it is the people who can make the real difference, not the politicians. Senator Obama said the War on Drugs was an utter failure in 2004 and yet, as president, he is still allocating almost twice as much money to police enforcement as to treatment and prevention. I believe his heart is in the right place, but the powerful political taboo has inhibited his good intentions. Now, however, the public have spoken for him. And after Colorado and Washington State have shown the model to work, you can bet that other states will be following their lead. The American people are eroding the model of a U.S.-led War on Drugs from within.

That is why the Breaking the Taboo campaign is so timely. All the pieces are in place. There is political will in much of Latin America. The USA's prerogative to obstruct changes in the law has been comprehensively undermined by the will of its own citizens. And there are models of reform like Portugal's decriminalization that have been proven viable alternatives. A drug policy based on health, harm reduction, cost effectiveness and human rights is no longer an impossible dream; it is something that is almost within our reach.

The film Breaking the Taboo is free online for a limited time so that as many people as possible can watch it. It is my hope that the film and the grassroots campaign that we are spearheading will keep the momentum for change building.

Celebrities, politicians, academics are joining the chorus of reform, and together we can generate the kind of campaign that politicians can no longer ignore. Politicians don't tend to be brave until it's going to win them votes. Colorado and Washington State have already shown that changing drug policy can win the popular vote. Now it is time for all of us to spread that message to the world.