14 September 2012

Alternatives to Prohibition (Continued...)

Shifting international attitudes

Following the report of 
the Global Commission 
on Drug Policy in 2011, 
international attitudes 
to prohibition underwent 
a rapid change. 

North and South America

During 2012, a number of Latin American nations, whose economies have been disrupted and social systems threatened by drug-associated violence, spoke out about the need for a new global approach to drugs. At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, 14-15 April, 2012, they demanded a debate on drug legalisation.

In particular they took strong exception to the terrible impact that the failed war on drugs has had on their people. The President of the United States was forced to accept the legitimacy of a debate about the legalisation of drugs. Drug law reform is never an easy topic in the United States but especially not in a Presidential election year. President Obama was forced to acknowledge that drug legalisation was a legitimate issue for discussion while emphasizing that the United States could not accept such an approach. The failure of the current approach should hardly be a surprise given the experience of alcohol prohibition in the United States and many other countries. Some argue that a ‘prisons-industrial complex’ in the United States has been allowed to become unduly influential. Mr Steven Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, admitted publicly during the meeting that the War on Drugs approach had failed. Pressure on conventional drug policy is now coming from several fronts. In Latin America, soaring levels of violence are forcing governments to review their commitment to efforts to cut drug supplies. In many other parts of the world, an entrenched commitment to drug prohibition has been allowed to obstruct the implementation of effective measures to control the spread of HIV among and from people who inject drugs. The serious breaches of the human rights of people who use drugs and the poor returns from government spending on drug law enforcement at a time of serious sovereign debt are other grounds for concern. 


As a strong ally of the United States, Australia has largely complied with the international approach. Most of the reforms in drug policy implemented recently in Europe were tolerated grudgingly by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) who sometimes conceded 
that they did not abrogate the treaties. A growing coalition of countries, driven by the negative public health impacts of prohibition and the empowerment that it gives to criminal suppliers, is advocating for a review and possible modification of the treaties. Australia should now consider joining such a coalition. This should be a topic for discussion at the National Drug Summit proposed later in this report.


Despite the existence of these treaties, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal have implemented reforms which reduced drug overdose deaths and HIV infections and have made communities safer. Despite the fact that the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal were, like most other countries, bound by the international drug treaties (1961, 1971, 1988), these countries were able to implement substantial reforms. The crucial step was redefining drugs as primarily a health and social issue. Sweden, now one of the few countries in Western Europe 

to continue to implement a predominantly criminal justice approach, reports that levels of drug use are low. But Swedish levels of problematic use seem about average for Europe while drug-related deaths are the eighth highest in the European Union and rising. Drug-related deaths in Australia may be even higher than Sweden (but direct comparisons are never straightforward). Although Australian media have published little information about recent international drug law reform, a number of European countries have made substantial changes apart from the few well-known examples. The experience of the Czech Republic is particularly important as the changes were carefully evaluated.

Following the overthrow of communism, drug use increased in Czechoslovakia in the 1990s. Czech politicians felt a pressure to respond. The Czech Republic was also under international pressure to maintain a strong emphasis on drug law enforcement with severe penalties for even minor drug offences. In 1998, the Czech government abandoned its liberal drug policy and introduced a new law specifying that possession of quantities of illicit drugs exceeding a threshold would result in criminal sanctions. A scientific evaluation of the new law found that criminalising drug possession neither deterred use nor benefitted health and was also expensive. The results of this study are well known in the Czech Republic and led to the removal (again) of criminal sanctions for the possession of small quantities of drugs. In 2000, (then) President Aleksander Kwaśniewski of Poland introduced harsh criminal penalties for persons found in possession of illicit drugs, regardless of quantity. The expectation was that this would ‘solve the drug problem’. While few drug dealers were arrested, the number of young people charged with drug possession increased more than ten-fold in the next eight years. Enforcement of this law was estimated to cost Polish taxpayers over $US 25 million annually. President Kwaśniewski ended up scrapping a law that he had introduced and in 2012 joined the Global Commission on Drug Policy so that he could support international drug law reform.

Distinguished citizens speak out

Another indication of growing disillusion with prohibition was the publication of an open letter in two leading UK newspapers, The Times and The Guardian, on 19 November 2011. The letter was signed by a group of more than 60 distinguished ‘international citizens’ who called for a review of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The letter attests to the remarkable recent change in international attitudes to global drug prohibition.

Letter from distinguished global citizens

On 19 November 2011, the following open letter was published in the United Kingdom in The Times and The Guardian newspapers by a group of more than 60 distinguished global citizens calling for a review of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This letter testifies to the remarkable recent change in international attitudes to global drug prohibition.

The letter reads:
We the undersigned call on members of the public and of parliament to recognise that: 
50 years after the 1961 UN single convention on narcotic drugs was launched, the global war on drugs has failed, and has had many unintended and devastating consequences worldwide. Use of the major controlled drugs has risen, and supply is cheaper, purer and more available than ever before. The UN conservatively estimates that there are now 250 million drug users worldwide. Illicit drugs are now the third most valuable industry in the world, after food and oil, estimated to be worth $450 billion a year, all in the control of criminals.

Fighting the war on drugs costs the world’s taxpayers incalculable billions each year. Millions of people are in prison worldwide for drug-related offences, mostly “little fish” – personal users and small-time dealers. Corruption amongst law-enforcers and politicians, especially in producer and transit countries, has spread as never before, endangering democracy and civil society. Stability, security and development are threatened by the fallout from the war on drugs, as are human rights. Tens of thousands of people die in the drug war each year.

The drug-free world so confidently predicted by supporters of the war on drugs is further than ever from attainment. The policies of prohibition create more harm than they prevent. We must seriously consider shifting resources away from criminalising tens of millions of otherwise law abiding citizens, and move towards an approach based on health, harm-reduction, cost-effectiveness and respect for human rights. Evidence consistently shows that these health-based approaches deliver better results than criminalisation.

Improving our drug policies is one of the key policy challenges of our time.

It is time for world leaders to fundamentally review their strategies in response to the drug phenomenon. That is what the Global Commission on Drug Policy, led by four former Presidents, by Kofi Annan and by other world leaders, has bravely done with its ground-breaking Report, first presented in New York in June, and now at the House of Lords on 17 November.

At the root of current policies lies the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. It is time to re-examine this treaty. A document entitled ‘Rewriting the UN Drug Conventions’ has recently been commissioned in order to show how amendments to the conventions could be made which would allow individual countries the freedom to explore drug policies that best suit their domestic needs, rather than seeking to impose the current “one-size-fits-all” solution.

As we cannot eradicate the production, demand or use of drugs, we must find new ways to minimise harm. We should give support to our Governments to explore new policies based on scientific evidence.

Signatories to Public Letter
President Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States, Nobel Prize winner
President Fernando H. Cardoso, former President of Brazil
President César Gaviria, former President of Colombia
President Vicente Fox, former President of Mexico
President Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland
President Lech Wałęsa, former President of Poland, Nobel Prize winner
President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former President of Poland
George P. Schultz, former US Secretary of State
Jaswant Singh, former Minister of Defence, of Finance, and for External Affairs, India
Professor Lord Piot, former UN Under Secretary-General
Louise Arbour, CC, GOQ, former UN High-Commissioner for Human Rights
Carel Edwards, former Head of the EU Commission’s Drug Policy Unit
Javier Solana, KOGF, KCMG, former EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy
Thorvald Stoltenberg, former Minister of Foreign Affairs (Norway) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Gary Johnson, Republican US Presidential Candidate
Professor Sir Harold Kroto, Chemist, Nobel Prize winner
Dr Kary Mullis, Chemist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor John Polanyi, Chemist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Kenneth Arrow, Economist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Thomas C. Schelling, Economist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Sir Peter Mansfield, Economist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Sir Anthony Leggett, Physicist, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Martin L. Perl, Physicist, Nobel Prize winner
Mario Vargas Llosa, Writer, Nobel Prize winner
Wisława Szymborska, Poet, Nobel Prize winner
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, former President of the Royal College of Physicians
Professor Robert Lechler, Dean of School of Medicine, KCL
Professor A. C. Grayling, Master of the New College of the Humanities
Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, Professor of Economics at Cambridge
Asma Jahangir, Former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Execution
Dr Muhammed Abdul Bari, MBE, Former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain
Professor Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT
Carlos Fuentes, Novelist and essayist
Sir Richard Branson, Entrepreneur and Founder of the Virgin Group
Sean Parker, Founding President of Facebook, Director of Spotify
John Whitehead, Chair of the WTC Memorial Foundation
Maria Cattaui, former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce
Nicholas Green, QC, former Chairman of the Bar Council
Professor David Nutt, former Chair of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs
Professor Trevor Robbins, Professor of Neuroscience at Cambridge 
Professor Niall Ferguson, Professor of History at Harvard University
Professor Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University
Professor Jonathan Wolff, Professor of Philosophy at UCL
Professor Robin Room, School of Population Health, University of Melbourne
Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former Editor of The Sunday Telegraph
Dr Jan Wiarda, former President of European Police Chiefs
Tom Lloyd, former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire
Sting, Musician and actor
Yoko Ono, Musician and artist
Bernardo Bertolucci, Film Director
Gilberto Gil, Musician, former Minister of Culture, Brazil
John Perry Barlow, Co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Bob Ainsworth, MP, former UK Secretary of State for Defence
Peter Lilley, MP, former Secretary of State for Social Security
Tom Brake, MP
Dr Julian Huppert, MP
Caroline Lucas, MP
Paul Flynn, MP
Dr Patrick Aeberhard, former President of Doctors of the World
Lord Mancroft, Chair of the Drug and Alcohol Foundation
Lord MacDonald, QC, former Head of the Crown Prosecution Service
General Lord Ramsbotham, former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
Lord Rees, OM, Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society
Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss, Director of the Beckley Foundation


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