Global commissions made up of eminent former policymakers can normally be counted upon to tell international leaders what they want to hear. But the Global Commission on Drug Policy – which has called on the services of distinguished names such Paul Volcker, Kofi Annan, Mario Vargas Llosa, Javier Solana and half a dozen former national politicians – has done something very different. Instead of telling world leaders what they want to hear, the commission has, instead, told them the truth.
Its report makes it clear that the war on drugs – the policy of total prohibition followed by the world's most powerful nations for the best part of four decades – "has not, and cannot, be won". It points out that the "war" has manifestly failed to curb the use of narcotics. On the contrary, drug taking has increased significantly. Between 1998 and 2008 estimated global heroin use has increased by 35 per cent, cocaine use by 27 per cent and cannabis by 8.5 per cent. It points out that the policy of prohibition has funnelled billions of dollars into the pockets of organised criminals around the world, who control the trade and fight viciously over its profits. In Mexico alone, 34,000 people have died in drugs-related violence since late 2006.
The Commission also has the courage to propose a radically different policy. It recommends the legalisation of some drugs and an end to the criminalisation of drug users. Addicts, it argues, should receive treatment and health services rather than prosecution through the law. Public resources should be channelled to prevention, rather than prohibition. It also urges political leaders and public figures to "have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately".
These are all sound arguments. The fact that they are far from new does not make them any the less powerful. But what are the chances of this report influencing the present crop of political leaders around the world? Sadly they are vanishingly slim. The White House "drug tsar" Richard Gil Kerlikowske rejected the report's recommendations yesterday. According to Ms Kerlikowske "making drugs more available will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe". This completely ignores the point made by the report that drugs are already readily available and that the purpose of a policy of prevention would be to squeeze demand.
The Mexican government was just as quick to criticise the report's recommendations. According to National Security spokesman, Alejandro Poire, "legalisation won't stop organised crime, nor its rivalries and violence". But this ignores the fact that legalisation would starve drugs gangs of the bulk of their revenue. Neither the US nor Mexico is prepared to acknowledge the examples in the report, from studies in the Netherlands and Portugal, which show how a harm reduction approach has been successful. This refusal to engage with the arguments against prohibition, this blindness to empirical data which supports alternative policies, is exactly what has characterised global drugs policy for decades.
Here in Britain our political leaders are just as resistant to new approaches. The previous Labour government downgraded cannabis to class C status, but then promptly returned it to class B in order to curry favour with the right-wing press. In 2009 when the government's own drugs adviser, David Nutt, tried to launch a debate about the relative harm of various substances he was promptly sacked. This commission is to be commended for telling the truth about drugs prohibition and for making an admirably clear argument for a different strategy. The tragedy is that world leaders still show no inclination to listen.