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“The war against drugs has failed”

A Colombian soldier empties a mixed solution of solvents used to remove the cocaine from the coca leaves Luca Zanetti

A report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy has concluded that the war on drugs has failed, triggering a heated debate in the United States.

The report, written by a high-profile panel including former Swiss cabinet minister Ruth Dreifuss, criticises the repressive approach in the US and calls for the legalisation of some drugs and an end to the criminalisation of drug users.

Instead of prohibition, the commission recommends “regulation models of illicit drugs designed to undermine the power of organised crime and safeguard the health and safety of their citizens”.

“Drug addicts are patients rather than criminals – they are in fact patients exploited by criminals and it’s the role of society to protect them,” Dreifuss, a member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party and interior minister from 1993 to 2002, told

The 24-page report, published last month, points out that it has been 40 years since President Nixon launched the US government’s “war on drugs”, which has been transplanted in the meantime to countries of production.

“This is the dominant discourse and we think it’s harmful,” Dreifuss said.

Dreifuss, who also held the rotating Swiss presidency in 1999, the first woman to do so, sits on the commission panel alongside former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the former leaders of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, British entrepreneur Richard Branson and former US Secretary of State George Schultz.


The US and Mexican governments have rejected the findings as misguided and “easy answers to the world’s drug problems”.

“Legalising illicit drugs increases drug use,” said White House drugs tsar Gil Kerlikowske, adding that the US approach was crowned with “success”.

“Drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated,” said a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“Making drugs more available – as this report suggests – will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe.”

Former US President Jimmy Carter, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, called on President Obama to “support and enact the reforms laid out by the Global Commission on Drug Policy”.

“Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies and have brought about an explosion in prison populations,” he said.

For pop musician Sting, speaking in a video for the Drug Policy Alliance, “the war on drugs represents an extraordinary violation of human rights”.

“Disappointing, yet predictable”

Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based non-government organisation which aims to end the war on drugs, told the commission’s report was “a major event because never before had such a distinguished panel reached such far-reaching recommendations for drug policy reform”.

He described the attitude of the Obama administration as “disappointing, yet predictable”.

“Obama looks more and more like his predecessors on this issue,” he said.

For her part, Dreifuss deplored the fact that the Obama administration “hadn’t made any clear statement against the war on drugs”.

She believed that both Democrats and Republicans “should bear in mind that the war on drugs and resorting to incarceration is expensive and that what we’re proposing is cheaper and more efficient”.


Dreifuss recalled the “powerful experience” of Switzerland, “an experience in public health which leads to police and criminal interventions increasingly connected with the policies of social integration and which has given excellent results under very serious scientific supervision, for example the almost total elimination of overdoses and the remarkable drop in petty crime”.

“I told the people I spoke to in the United States that it’s certainly possible to survive politically after initiating reform.”

Their response, she said, was point to upcoming elections. “At a federal level, I think Mr Obama has more problems to cope with than I did…”

Nevertheless, Dreifuss remains optimistic. “The distribution of clean syringes is no longer a taboo in federal politics, America has begun to see that there is a racial element in the disproportion of sentences between consumers or crack – who tend to be black – and those of cocaine – more often white – and it has corrected this disparity.”

She continued: “The medical usage of cannabis is now authorised in several states, and the idea of legalising cannabis was only rejected by a slim majority in California.”

“Huge challenges”

Ethan Nadelmann is also optimistic, but he acknowledges that “huge challenges” need to be overcome in the US to restore the balance in the fight against drugs between repression and rehabilitation.

These challenges, he says, include “the influence of the well-financed prison-industrial complex on political circles” and “the difficulty to win support from conservatives on harm reduction policies such as needle exchange”.

Concerning this, Nadelmann finds Switzerland “inspiring” for the US. Indeed, Switzerland featured as one of the case studies in the report (see box).

“The fact that a relatively conservative country like Switzerland could provide leadership in terms of an intelligent and fiscally responsible drug policy is encouraging.”

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.

Vast expenditures on criminalisation and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organisation are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers. Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/Aids, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.

(Source: Global Commission on Drug Policy report 2011)

In response to severe and highly visible drug problems that developed across the country in the 1980s, Switzerland implemented a new set of policies and programs (including heroin substitution programs) based on public health instead of criminalisation. The consistent implementation of this policy has led to an overall reduction in the number of people addicted to heroin as well as a range of other benefits. A key study concluded that:

“Heroin substitution targeted hard-core problematic users (heavy consumers) – assuming that 3,000 addicts represent 10% to 15% of Switzerland’s heroin users that may account for 30% to 60% of the demand for heroin on illegal markets. Heavily engaged in both drug dealing and other forms of crime, they also served as a link between wholesalers and users. As these hard-core users found a steady, legal means for their addiction, their illicit drug use was reduced as well as their need to deal in heroin and engage in other criminal activities.

The heroin substitution program had three effects on the drug market:

• It substantially reduced the consumption among the heaviest users, and this reduction in demand affected the viability of the market. (For example, the number of new addicts registered in Zurich in 1990 was 850. By 2005, the number had fallen to 150.)

• It reduced levels of other criminal activity associated with the market. (For example, there was a 90% reduction in property crimes committed by participants in the program.)

• By removing local addicts and dealers, Swiss casual users found it difficult to make contact with sellers.”

(Source: Global Commission on Drug Policy report 2011)

(Translated from French by Thomas Stephens)

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