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50-year war on drugs has failed

This week, I went to hear Sir Richard Branson and Eric Nadelmann speak about the war on drugs. It was juxtaposed on Friday with my sitting in a room with a young man about to enter drug treatment in a local psychiatric hospital. He is lucky. His family can afford treatment, and he has not been arrested and jailed for possession, as many people in our society without financial resources are. I thought it an interesting synergy that I was hearing so much about the drug war and I was sitting next to someone who could have easily been a victim of its failed policies.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, if every American who has ever possessed illicit drugs were punished for it, nearly half of the U.S. population would have drug violations on record. The alliance found that African-Americans comprise half of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. We are spending billions of dollars to lock people up for drug offenses when that money could be used for prevention and treatment.

At the Atlantic forum I attended, Sir Richard spoke eloquently about his work on drug law reform and his work on the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The commission has an all-star panel of commissioners, including former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Switzerland as well as the prime minister of Greece.

In addition to the hard facts, the commission wants people to know the costs. It has a section called “Count the Costs: 50 Years of the War on Drugs.” The “war” on drugs has actually provided financing for paramilitary and terrorist groups to the tune of $300 billion a year. They say the overlooked costs include damage to some of our most sensitive environmental areas, such as the Andes and Amazon, by aerial spraying and deforestation by drug cartels.

What is striking about the report is the unintended consequences of this “war on drugs” and the complete failure of eradication of drugs and the governments who support this “war.” Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said they found that the unintended consequences are many and include the growth of a “huge black market” by the international demand for drugs, using scare resources to fund law enforcement to address the international market, environmental degradation known as the “balloon effect” from shifting areas of drug cultivation and the stigmatization and marginalization of drug users who often have criminal records. Those criminal records reinforce drug use because people can’t get jobs and are left on the outside of society.

The commission notes that decriminalization does not result in increase in drug use. Citing the work in Portugal, which in 2001 became the first European country to decriminalize the use of possession of all illicit drugs, they found a slight uptick in the overall use of drugs but consistency with other countries where drugs remain criminalized.

The commission generally recommended replacing punishment with treatment. Based on the current science, we know that drugs change the brain and that drug addiction is a disease. If we treat it as anything else, we do not recognize that prison is not going make any substantial changes in drug-usage patterns. Simply put: It hasn’t worked.

One clear recommendation of the commission is to encourage countries to experiment with models of legal regulation of drugs. This experimentation would also undermine organized crime’s business models of running and promoting the use of illegal drugs.

It also recommended better metrics and goals to measure products. The 50-year war on drugs has not worked. The facts are clear, so why not get real numbers to make laws that are effective? Once new laws are implemented, real crime figures – such as the numbers of breaking-and-entering crimes – can be calculated and the true effect of the laws can be measured.

The commission also recommends that countries investing in a law-enforcement approach should focus on organized crime and drug traffickers and not the end user. That would save money in the U.S. as we clean out our prisons and focus on the big guys.

The commission also recommended evidence-based prevention focused on youth and a range of options for drug treatment, including drug substitution. This is so obvious, it is hard to believe that the commission had to put it in as a recommendation. The problem is that politicians want to be “tough on crime” and use the drug war as part of an election strategy. It gets us nowhere.

Sir Richard and his Global Commission do not have radical ideas. They have ideas based on fact and science. The problem is, there is very little political will in this current climate to make sense. The only way out is the for some of the cost cutters to see that sensible drug laws allowing for treatment – not incarceration – is the only way to save us all money. Humane treatment doesn’t work to convince politicians. Maybe saving real money will.