Stewart M. Patrick

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The Global Debate Over Illegal Drugs Heats Up

by Stewart M. Patrick
April 1, 2014

Mexican soldiers look as 134 tonnes of marijuana are incinerated at Morelos military base in Tijuana October 20, 2010 (Courtesy Jorge Duenes/Reuters). Mexican soldiers look as 134 tonnes of marijuana are incinerated at Morelos military base in Tijuana October 20, 2010 (Courtesy Jorge Duenes/Reuters).

Having been frozen for four decades, a long-deferred debate over the “war on drugs” is finally heating up. Ever since the Nixon administration, the dominant paradigm informing U.S. and global policy towards narcotics has been prohibition. That failed approach is now being challenged by a slew of influential reports, path-breaking national policies in the Western Hemisphere, and state-level experiments within the United States. Just how turbulent the debate has become was clear at yesterday’s roundtable on the future of international drug policy, hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The United States will need to chart a new policy course if it hopes to retain credibility and influence as global attitudes toward drugs continue to evolve.

The U.S. law enforcement approach has focused on attacking sources of supply, interdicting shipments of drugs and incarcerating dealers. It has also targeted demand, imprisoning and fining addicts and casual users. And yet these repressive efforts have made little dent in the global drug trade. By artificially inflating profits, prohibition has only incentivized criminal activity. Traffickers have successfully shifted production sites and transit routes in response to crackdowns. Criminality, corruption and violence have destabilized vulnerable governments. Prison populations have swollen with addicts and casual users.  And yet drugs are cheaper and more available than ever before.

Fortunately, a long-deferred debate over how to handle the global drug trade is gaining momentum. The first cracks in the prohibitionist edifice appeared in 2011, with the publication of the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The commission—co-chaired by former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, former Brazilian president Fernando Enrique Cardoso, and former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz, and including other global luminaries like Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker, and Javier Solana—pulled no punches.  The report’s opening paragraph said it all:

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. 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.

It was time, the commission concluded, to “break the taboo on debate and reform.” The report categorically rejected the “repressive” measures that had “clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.” The commission endorsed a public health approach to reducing drug use and dependence, an end to incarceration of low-level drug offenders, and a shift from prohibition to regulation and harm reduction, with ample room for national experimentation—including decriminalization and even legalization.

The Western Hemisphere has been most receptive to this appeal. The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, last year released a bracing Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas, documenting the damage of the war on drugs and endorsing “differentiated approaches” tailored to national contexts and concerns.  In Central America, ravaged by drug-related violence, Guatemalan President Otto Peréz Molina has insisted that prohibition has failed and that the only solution is “regulation.” In Colombia, which has received billions of dollars in U.S. counterdrug assistance since 2000, president Juan Manuel Santos has announced, “It’s time to think again about the war on drugs.”  Further south, Uruguay has become the first country in the Americas to legalize the marijuana trade. Meanwhile, in the United States, Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational use of cannabis, and eighteen other states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized its use.  And at the federal level, both President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have noted the futility and injustice of continuing to imprison millions of Americans for low-level drug offenses.

The United States, long the watchdog of the global prohibition regime, is facing a new diplomatic landscape as a result of all this turbulence. Speaking at CSIS, Ambassador William Brownfield, assistant secretary of the State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), called it the most significant “national and global debate on drug policy” in history. It is one where the United States increasingly finds itself on the defensive, alternately whipsawed by attacks on its prohibitionist national stance and criticisms of the conduct of its individual states. Last October, Brownfield found himself before the  International Narcotics Control Board, where he was asked to explain why the United States could claim to be “in compliance” with the obligations of the three main international drug conventions, given legal and fast-developing cannabis markets in Washington and Colorado.

The diplomatic challenge for the United States is to adjust its prohibitionist stance to new hemispheric and global realities. And it does not have much time. In 2016 the United Nations General Assembly will convene a Special Session (UNGASS) on Drug Policy—the first such event in eighteen years. To move the global debate on drug policy in a constructive direction, the United States has just two years to go from enforcer to reformer.

At CSIS, Brownfield expressed confidence that the United States can gain international support for a global drug regime based on four pillars:

  • Defend the integrity of the three existing international drug conventions. Some aspects of these treaties—the 1961 Single Convention, the 1971 Expanded Convention, and the 1988 Convention against Drug Trafficking—may be  outdated. But Brownfield insists that it is far easier to “adjust” these instruments than negotiate completely new ones (much less get Senate approval for ratification).
  • Allow flexible interpretations of the drug conventions. Like the U.S. constitution, these must be seen as “living documents” that can be interpreted “as the world changes.”
  • Tolerate different national strategies and policies: It is inevitable that each UN member state will develop its own approach to controlling narcotics, based on its cultural and political realities.
  • Combat organized criminal groups: Whatever one’s position on legalization, all governments must commit to fighting violent drug traffickers.

Other speakers at the CSIS debate were far more critical of the United States, arguing that its commitment to prohibition and repressive drug policies continue to obstruct a new, more realistic global approach to drugs. What U.S. officials were unwilling to address, argued Global Commission members Michel Kazatchkine and Ruth Dreifus, was the most fundamental question: “Have we been successful or not (in our current policies of repression and prohibition)?” “Let’s open an honest debate,” Kazatchkine implored. He noted the “absurdity” that at the most recent UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in March in Vienna, the final resolution had not even permitted use of the phrase “harm reduction,” which the United States, Japan, and some other countries had considered too controversial. Clearly, the debate over the future of U.S. and global drug policy is only beginning.

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