Pubdate: Fri, 03 Jun 2011
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2011 The Ottawa Citizen
Author: Dan Gardner
Note: Dan Gardner's column appears Wednesday and Friday.


Once again, former UN officials and world leaders have come forward 
to challenge the hopeless drug policies of current UN officials and 
world leaders, writes Dan Gardner

On Thursday, a panel of eminent persons released a report calling on 
the world's governments to dramatically change how they deal with 
illicit drugs. "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating 
consequences for individuals and societies around the world," 
concluded the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

The 19 members of the commission include former presidents of 
Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, as well legendary former United States 
Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, former Canadian Supreme Court 
justice Louise Arbour, and former secretary of state under Ronald 
Reagan, George Shultz. But for those who know the history of the war 
on drugs, and the central role played by the United Nations, the most 
striking name on the list is that of Kofi Annan.

As secretary general of the United Nations in 1998, Kofi Annan 
presided over a special United Nations assembly on illicit drugs, 
which brought together leaders from all over the world. Shortly 
before that historic event, a letter of protest was delivered to the UN chief.

"We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm 
than drug abuse itself," the letter began. Trying to stop the harms 
done by drug consumption by banning drugs had only succeeded in 
producing a massive international black market. "This industry has 
empowered organized criminals, corrupted governments at all levels, 
eroded internal security, stimulated violence, and distorted both 
economic markets and moral values." These were not the consequences 
"of drug use per se, but of decades of failed and futile drug war policies."

"Mr. Secretary General," the letter concluded, "we appeal to you to 
initiate a truly open and honest dialogue regarding the failure of 
global drug policies -one in which fear, prejudice, and punitive 
prohibitions yield to common sense, science, public health, and human rights."

The letter was signed by a remarkable list of eminent statesmen, 
officials, and intellectuals, including four former presidents from 
Latin America, Nobel laureates Milton Friedman and Adolfo Perez 
Esquivel, former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, and former 
U.S. secretary of state George Shulz. But Annan must have been 
impressed by one signatory in particular. It was Javier Perez de 
Cuellar, former United Nations secretary general.

What did Annan think at the time? That's not clear. But the United 
Nations certainly did not "initiate a truly open and honest 
dialogue." In fact, the critics were dismissed out of hand. "There 
are naysayers who believe a global fight against illegal drugs is 
unwinnable," said Pino Arlacchi, the top UN drug official. "I say 
emphatically they are wrong."

American officials were particularly contemptuous. U.S. president 
Bill Clinton's drug czar dismissed the signatories as airy 
intellectuals. The war on drugs was making great progress, he insisted.

The UN special assembly went ahead, following a script largely 
written by the government of the United States. The war on drugs 
would not only continue, it would escalate, with the nations of the 
world -Canada very much included -agreeing to increase the already 
enormous sums they were spending on the suppression of drugs. And 
they set an ambitious goal: " ... eliminating or significantly 
reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis 
plant, and the opium poppy by the year 2008."

A decade later, the world was not drug-free. In fact, the UN's own 
estimates showed marijuana consumption had risen 8.5 per cent, 
cocaine consumption had increased 27 per cent, and opiate consumption 
had soared 34.5 per cent.

There were no consequences for this abject failure. In 2008, the UN 
hardly mentioned the goal it had set in 1998. The UN's drug agency 
even lied about it, and spun the data in order to claim success. But 
few journalists noticed or cared. They had long since forgotten an 
event that had been major news at the time. And governments weren't 
about to remind them.

And so we're back to eminent people, including a former UN secretary 
general, pleading with the world's governments to reconsider. Only 
the names have changed.

It would be appalling if this were the first instance in which the UN 
and the world's governments ignored criticism, spent vast sums of 
money on the suppression of drugs, and refused to take responsibility 
for -or even acknowledge -abject failure. But it's not the first 
instance. Far from it.

The modern system of international drug control began 50 years ago, 
with the creation of the UN Convention which is still its foundation. 
There were critics in 1961, too. But they were dismissed as naysayers.

Years passed. The amount of money spent on the war on drugs soared. 
So did drug production, consumption, and distribution. Richard Nixon 
coined the phrase "war on drugs" and further ramped up drug control 
efforts. The drug trade kept growing. Ronald Reagan launched his war 
on drugs. Things got worse.

On and on it goes. Occasionally there's a new wrinkle, like the 
advent of the AIDS epidemic, which most epidemiologists agree was 
made much worse by the criminalization of drugs. But for the most 
part, only the names change. In the 1990s, Colombia was torn apart; 
now it's Mexico. Turkish opium production ebbed and Afghanistan's 
surged, providing a bountiful source of funding for the weapons that 
kill our soldiers.

It's the same at the national level. The current Canadian debate 
between critics who want an approach focused on public health and 
prohibitionists who want to scale up law enforcement and punishment 
has happened many times before. The prohibitionists always win. And 
their policies always fail. In the early 1960s, harsh new 
punishments, including severe mandatory minimum sentences, came into 
force. Shortly after, drug trafficking and consumption soared.

"Research has almost uniformly failed to show that intensified 
policing or sanctions have reduced either drug prevalence or 
drug-related harm," concluded Peter Reuter, one of the world's 
leading experts on drug policy.

No matter. The Harper government opposes Vancouver's supervised 
injection site and any other attempt to try something new. Instead, 
it will soon pass new mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences.

Only the names change. "Political leaders and public figures should 
have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge 
privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that 
repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the 
war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won," concluded the Global 
Commission on Drug Policy.

The commission's report, complete with Kofi Annan's signature, has 
been given to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. It would be nice to 
think history will not repeat yet again.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom