Pubdate: Sat, 04 Jun 2011
Source: Edmonton Journal (CN AB)
Copyright: 2011 The Edmonton Journal
Author: Dan Gardner,


It's Time Our Leaders Paid Attention to the 'Naysayers'

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

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 and former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. But Annan
must have been impressed by one signatory in particular. It was Javier
Perez de Cuellar, former United Nations secretary general.

What Annan thought at the time is not clear. But the UN 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 Canadian 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, a leading expert on drug

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 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. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.