Pubdate: Mon, 27 Jun 2011
Source: Windsor Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2011 The Windsor Star
Author: Dan Gardner, The Windsor Star


Earlier this month, 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, 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

U.S. 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

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, such as 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

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

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. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.