In 1998 the UN declared: "a drug-free world, we can do it!" In reality, we cannot.
The War on Drugs has failed. According to all available indices, it is no longer defendable. Vast expenditure on drug law enforcement has resulted in increasing levels of overall drug-use and lowered drug prices. 2011 is the 50th anniversary of the 1961 UN Convention, which lies at the root of the criminalizing approach to drug control. Now is the perfect time to re-evaluate our approach.
Of all regions in the world, Latin America has perhaps been the most affected by the unintended consequences of global prohibition. Huge criminal markets have at times turned countries such as Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico into nigh-on war zones. Drug enforcement and eradication in one Andean country has displaced production into neighboring countries and back in turn, in an ongoing cycle. The criminalization of drug control has seen the numbers of those incarcerated for drug offenses (even the possession of minor amounts for personal consumption) rise to levels that overwhelm judicial systems. Currently there are over 10 million people in prison worldwide.
However, Latin America, as the region that has suffered the most, is now leading the way to an open and frank discussion of drugs. Recent declarations from certain politicians show a much greater understanding of the problems than those coming from some of their Western counterparts. In Peru, former President and current presidential candidate Alejandro Toledo declared himself open to full decriminalization. Whilst he nuanced his argument a few days later, the declaration itself shows that Latin American governments are becoming increasingly progressive in their nature. The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, has declared its outright opposition to a "misguided and counter-productive war."
The most significant declaration of all, however, may well be that of current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Santos is head of a country traditionally felt to be one of the US' major allies in the War on Drugs. However, President Santos has declared himself open to a discussion on alternative approaches that may reduce both the risks and harms associated with illegal drugs. A recipient of major US aid, Colombia cannot turn away directly from Plan Colombia, but Santos' comments show that Colombian drug policy may be slowly turning against the whirlpool of US foreign policy.
A fellow Andean country, Bolivia, has recently seen more and more countries support its proposals to reform the international prohibition of chewing the coca leaf. Flexibility and cultural sensitivity are vital within approaches to drug conventions. Drug control regimes should be respectful of human rights and take account of different cultural norms in societies around the world. There must be the freedom for individual countries to work out what is best for them. The one-fit-all model has shown itself to be highly destructive.
Various countries such as Portugal have shown how successful a change in policy can be. They have demonstrated that the decriminalization of use and a commitment to provide health and rehabilitation programs as alternatives to incarceration, together with a sustained educational program, can diminish the harms associated with drug-use. Both Hungary and the Czech Republic criminalized use in 1999. However, studies showed that this policy had been a disaster and brought more social costs than benefits. Consequently, both countries reversed this policy (in 2003 and 2010 respectively). We cannot let such lessons go unheeded. We must learn from these examples.
It is time for a new approach. The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, with its zero-tolerance approach, was written in a very different context to today, both socially and politically. A rewriting of the UN Convention would enable us to move forward from the present impasse. Individual countries should have more freedom to be able to decriminalize the personal use of drugs and, should the country so wish, to legally regulate certain substances, such as cannabis, thereby being able to control and label their content, and tax them. This would have the advantage of saving vast sums on the continuation of the coercive approach, as well as raising substantial tax to implement an educational and treatment approach to drug-use. It would also solve the problem of hundreds of billions of dollars going into the hands of criminals each year.
The Beckley Foundation Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform 2011-2012 is proposing such a model.
2011 is the 50th anniversary of the 1961 UN Convention, the 40th anniversary of the UK Misuse of Drugs Act and the 10th anniversary of the Portuguese drug decriminalisation. There has never been a more appropriate time for change.