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Time for a truce in the war against drugs?

Suspected street dealers in Lausanne are searched. Two thirds of expenditure on drugs policy goes towards repression Keystone

Arguing that a drug-free society is unattainable, a commission of global figures - including a former Swiss minister – are promoting a radical change in drugs policy.

Two lawyers from Neuchâtel University have recently added their analysis to the case against the war on drugs.

The current approach to combatting the trade and consumption of drugs dates back to 1961 when the United Nations ratified the only Convention on Drugs. The text put forward a global prohibition regime, including cannabis for the first time.

In 1971 the United States government under Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs”, whose aim was to achieve by all means – including military – a drug-free world.

Forty years later the war has cost trillions of dollars but has been lost. The world has probably never consumed so many drugs, and global trade (according to IMF estimates) has reached $400 billion per year, shared between mafia groups and terrorist organisations. From public health to security to human rights, the failure is absolute.

“Simply think that half of all the death sentences handed down in the world are for minor drug-related crimes and that one third of the HIV contaminations outside sub-Saharan Africa are through sharing syringes,” former Swiss Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss said.

It was she who introduced Switzerland’s so-called “four-pillar” drugs policy in the 1990s of prevention, therapy, risk reduction and repression.


Today Dreifuss campaigns at the heart of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a citizens’ initiative launched in Latin America, where the ravages of the drugs war are particularly marked.

The commission’s illustrious members include three former presidents  – Zedillo (Mexico), Gaviria (Colombia) and Cardoso (Brazil) – writers Carlos Feuntes and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, ex US Secretary of State George Schultz, former head of the US Federal Reserve Paul Volcker and the founder of Virgin, Richard Branson.

In June 2011, the Commission released a radical report which urged “fundamental reform in anti-drug policy at a national and international level”.

In essence, it recommends decriminalising users and respecting the rights of those involved in the lower level of the trade (farmers, mules, small sellers). It advocates the promotion of methadone and prescription heroin treatment and calls for an avoidance of simplistic messages like “no to drugs” and zero tolerance policies in favour of credible information and prevention programmes.

In conclusion, the Commission report calls on governments “to ensure that the international conventions are interpreted or revised to provide a solid legal base to allow risk reduction, decriminalisation and legal regulation to be tried”.

“I’m not sure if the world is ready for such a paradigm shift. But I know that numerous leaders are aware of the need for new approaches. The report sparked a lot of interest and we are often contacted,” said Dreifuss. The former cabinet minister was recently at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, after a widely covered appearance before a British parliamentary committee in January with Richard Branson.

Full legalisation

In November 2011 came another controversial publication. Under the title War against drugs: intoxicating contradictions?, two doctors of law from Neuchâtel University proposed nothing less than the total legalisation of all illicit drugs.

Ludivine Ferreira and Alain Barbezat also support the view that the drugs war has totally failed. “Repression is ineffective, in Switzerland as elsewhere,” Barbezat told

“Criminology studies show that for a sanction to have a dissuading effect, it should be applied quickly as well as also being quite severe. However this rarely happens and the severity, above a certain level, doesn’t bring anything more in terms of crime prevention. It can even have a counterproductive effect.”

But does that justify the leap to legalisation? The two lawyers realise that the proposal is not palatable in the current political context. In 2008, 63 per cent of voters rejected a people’s initiative for the decriminalisation of cannabis.

However during the Spring parliament session, the House of Representative voted to no longer prosecute users caught with less than ten grams of  “cannabis-type drugs”, but to impose a SFr200 ($216.5) fine instead. But the debate was heated, the vote close, and the proposition still has to be accepted by the Senate.

“Our aim is also to rock the boat, to advance the debate,” Ferreira admitted. “If we did not allow ourselves to make suggestions on the grounds that they would upset people, we would not move forward and we might still have the death penalty in Switzerland.”

No supermarket drugs

The two young lawyers are not striving for a stoned society with dope for sale on supermarket shelves. They believe the Swiss four-pillar policy, which treats drugs as a public health question and not as a simple penal issue, is going in the right direction.


The problem, in their eyes, is that two-thirds of the anti-drugs spending in Switzerland goes on the repression element, which has been deemed ineffective.

“With legalisation, that expenditure will go on the other pillars of prevention and treatment,” Ferreira noted.  “And that all needs to be built into the legislation because just to legalise, would be nice but would not work.”

As for the risk of seeing consumption explode, put forward by opponents to any level of relaxing prohibition, the two lawyers don’t believe in this danger. 

“Today it is relatively easy to procure practically any drug,” Barbezat said.

“However most people don’t do it, held back as they are by other barriers apart from the legal one: not being attracted, the moral inhibition, awareness of the health risks…

“We have this image of a big bad penal code watching us and as soon as it turns its back everyone will dip their hands in the jam jar. But is it wrong!”

“We have made the excellent experience that in doing things prudently, we can advance,” Ruth Dreifuss said, commenting on the four-pillar policy that she implemented when she had responsibility for public health.

Switzerland is often cited as an example for its legislation and practice in reducing drug-related problems, as much for users as for society in general.


SFr4.1 billion spent annually on the four pillars.

One million people estimated to smoke cannabis in Switzerland.

Half of all 15-16 year olds have already tried the drug.

26,000 adults regularly consume heroin and/or cocaine.


17,000 people receive substitution treatment (methadone or buprenorphine)


1,300 people receive heroin on medical prescription


250 die every year due to the consumption of hard drugs

The transmission of HIV by syringes has practically disappeared.

Legalisation. Drugs have not yet been legalised anywhere in the world. Legalisation would mean the freedom to produce, sell, buy and consume drugs just like alcohol, tobacco and medicines.

Decriminalisation. Under this approach the possession and consumption of small quantities does not lead to prosecution but generally to a fine. Legally equivalent to a parking offence.

Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2000. Elsewhere cannabis has been the only drug decriminalised to a greater or lesser extent – as in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Estonia, Czech Republic, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.

(Translated from French by Clare O’Dea)

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