Calls to legalise cannabis and ecstasy

Panel of distinguished world figures wants an end to 50-year war on drugs

It isn't working. It never has worked. And so long as it continues to be fought in its current form, the "war on drugs" will do little to curb the spread of illegal narcotics or prevent hundreds of thousands of people from continuing to lose their lives each year as a result of the international drug trade.

So says a panel of world leaders who called yesterday for the biggest shake-up of drug laws in half a century. "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world," declared the Global Commission on Drug Policy. "Fundamental reforms... are urgently needed."

The Commission, which counts the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan along with former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia as members, believes governments must now experiment with "legal regulation of drugs." "This recommendation applies especially to cannabis," reads a major report it published in New York yesterday. "But we would also encourage other experiments in decriminalisation."

Ecstasy, which is currently considered a class-A substance, ought to be reclassified in line with medical opinion that it is far less dangerous than legal drugs such as nicotine and alcohol, the report suggests. Users of narcotics should be offered education and treatment, rather than being incarcerated, it advises. And countries which insist on continuing a "law enforcement" approach to drug crime should focus resources on taking down high-level traffickers, rather than arresting everyday drug mules and street dealers.

Although the recommendations are regarded as a statement of the obvious by many experts, they fly in the face of the official policies of most Western nations. Their endorsement by the Global Commission is therefore likely to be highly controversial. However, campaigners for drug reform are hoping that yesterday's report may herald a shift in the way drug policy is debated by the international community.

The 24-page document notes that years of prohibition have resulted in a steady rise in the number of people regularly using drugs, which the UN currently estimates at around 250 million worldwide. Opiate use has grown by around 35 percent in the past decade, while world consumption of cocaine and cannabis has risen 27 and 8.5 percent respectively.

Current laws leave this growing industry in the hands of criminal gangs, resulting in spiralling violence from the slums of West Africa to swaths of Central and Latin America. In Mexico, a supposed government crackdown on drug gangs has resulted in 38,000 deaths in the past four and a half years.

The Commission, which also counts Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, George Shultz, the former US Secretary of State, and Sir Richard Branson among its 19 members, says the UN should now lead an "urgent" rethink of global drug policies, based on scientific evidence rather than political expediency.

Citing the success of liberal drug policies in countries such as Portugal, Holland and Australia, it recommends taking money spent on costly law enforcement campaigns and investing it instead in preventive drug education and treatment programmes proved to curb addiction rates and prevent health problems among users.

"Overwhelming evidence from Europe, Canada and Australia now demonstrates the human and social benefits of treating drug addiction as a health rather than criminal justice problem," said co-author Ruth Dreifuss, the former Swiss president, at yesterday's launch of the report in New York. "These policies need to be adopted worldwide, with requisite changes to the international drug control conventions."

The "war on drugs" was declared in 1971 by the US president Richard Nixon, a decade after UN members signed the "Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs" which established the fundamentals of the world's current policies. It was reinforced by the Reagan administration which told young people to "just say no" to drugs.

Today, polls indicate the public still support the current, tough laws. As a result, Bruce Bagley, an expert on drug trafficking at the University of Miami, told The Independent he believes there is "about zero" chance of the Commission's recommendations being taken up by the US and other major nations.

"That said, this is a significant contribution from some very prominent individuals, which form part of an emerging conversation," he said.

Timeline: 50-year campaign

1961 The United Nations passes the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, enshrining drug prohibition in domestic law across the world. It remains the keystone for global narcotics policies.

1970 The Nixon administration funds an expansion of methadone programmes in Washington, run by Dr Robert De Pont, who first documented a link between drugs and crime in 1969. Within a year, burglaries in the city decrease by 41 per cent.

1971 In January, the UK Misuse of Drugs Act is passed classifying illicit substances and outlining punishments for illegal drug possession. It remains the basis for UK drug policy today. Five months later, President Richard Nixon officially declares a "war on drugs" and identifies drug abuse as "public enemy No 1" in the US.

1977 Jimmy Carter endorses a federal decriminalisation bill for marijuana, but it garners little support and momentum fizzles out. The UK Misuse of Drugs Act is amended to include MDMA (Ecstasy) as a Class A drug.

1982 Notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar is elected to Colombian Congress.

1984 Nancy Reagan launches her famous "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign. By 1988 more than 12,000 "Just Say No" centres existed globally.

1985 Colombia extradites drug traffickers to the US for the first time.

1986 President Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which assigns $1.7bn to continue fighting the "war on drugs" and imposes mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences.

1989 Forbes magazine lists Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar as the seventh-richest man in the world. President George H W Bush creates the Office of National Drug Control Policy. William Bennett is appointed first US "drug tsar", and aims to make drug misuse socially unacceptable.

2000 Colombian President Andres Pastrana Arango wins $1.3bn US funding to combat drug-trafficking, decrease cocaine production by spraying coca crops with toxic herbicides, and fight guerrilla rebels who profit from and protect the drug trade, under a campaign dubbed "Plan Colombia".

2002 Portugal decriminalises possession of all drugs for personal use.

2004 President Hamid Karzai calls for a jihad against Afghanistan's multibillion-dollar drugs industry. The campaign costs British taxpayers £850m between 2002 and 2009. The UK reclassifies cannabis to Class C.

2009 US diplomat Richard Holbrooke announces that Western policies to eradicate Afghanistan's opium crops "have been a failure. They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work." The Obama administration drops prohibitive, "war on drugs" rhetoric in favour of prevention and harm reduction strategies favoured by Europe.

2011 A report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy says the global "war on drugs" has failed. It calls for the legalisation of some drugs and an end to the criminalisation of drug users.

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