Elder Statesmen Declare a War on the 'War on Drugs'

What took them so long?

A violent organization that includes recruits with Western passports uses terrorist tactics—beheading journalists, for example—as it seizes swaths of territory. That describes ISIS, a radical Sunni militia operating in Iraq and Syria. But it also describes the transnational drug cartels operating in Mexico and Central and South America. Those organizations have killed many times more Americans than ISIS. They regularly tunnel into the United States to facilitate smuggling. What's more, their existence is a direct result of American public policy. But for America's decades-long War on Drugs, the drug cartels would not exist.

That context is almost always missing from America's domestic debate about drug laws. Almost no one acknowledges that a succession of U.S. presidents, from drug warriors Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to former recreational drug users Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, helped to create and sustain transnational criminal organizations that slaughter and even behead innocents abroad, or that current U.S. policy predictably and inevitably fills their coffers with cash. But that's the proper context for this week's news.

"A coalition of political figures from around the world, including Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, and several former European and Latin American presidents, is urging governments to decriminalize a variety of illegal drugs and set up regulated drug markets within their own countries," The New York Times reports.

This is an unprecedented recommendation:

The proposal by the group, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, goes beyond its previous call to abandon the nearly half-century-old American-led war on drugs. As part of a report scheduled to be released on Tuesday, the group goes much further than its 2011 recommendation to legalize cannabis. The former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a member of the commission, said the group was calling for the legal regulation of “as many of the drugs that are currently illegal as possible, with the understanding that some drugs may remain too dangerous to decriminalize.”

All they need is a crude metaphor to summarize their recommendations for an inattentive public. After reading their report, I can't help but conclude that what they're doing—in the accepted parlance of our political discourse—is declaring a war on the War on Drugs. The attacks on drug warriors start right in the summary.

"Powerful and established drug control bureaucracies, both national and international, staunchly defend status quo policies," the report states. "They seldom question whether their involvement and tactics in enforcing drug policy
are doing more harm than good." The zingers keep coming: "Meanwhile, there is often a tendency to sensationalize each new 'drug scare' in the media," the report continues. "And politicians regularly subscribe to the appealing rhetoric of 'zero tolerance' and creating 'drug free' societies rather than pursuing an informed approach based on evidence of what works. Popular associations of illicit drugs with ethnic and racial minorities stir fear and inspire harsh legislation. And enlightened reform advocates are routinely attacked as 'soft on crime' or even 'pro-drug.'"

Another key passage:

If use does increase with moves toward regulation—and the possibility cannot be discounted—it is worth recalling that the totality of associated social and health problems is still likely to decrease. The use of legally produced products in regulated environments will be intrinsically safer, the harm linked to both the illegal trade and punitive enforcement will be reduced, and obstacles to more effective health and social interventions removed.

This is an attack on the core logic of prohibitionists. In fact, the report even includes an unprecedented passage in which global elites attack the motives of other global elites who continue to stand in the way of long overdue reforms to the failed War on Drugs. "The regime, and policies adopted to support it since the 1960s, is premised on the criminalization of people who produce, sell or use drugs," the authors declare. "After more than half a century of this punitive approach, there is now overwhelming evidence that it has not only failed to achieve its own objectives, but has also generated serious social and health problems. If governments are genuinely committed to safeguarding the safety, health, and human rights of their citizens, they must urgently adopt new approaches."

So what do you say, President Obama? Are you "genuinely committed to safeguarding the safety, health, and human rights" of Americans? If so, why has your administration done so little to end the War on Drugs, despite your own history of drug use and the "overwhelming evidence that it has not only failed to achieve its own objectives, but has also generated serious social and health problems"? What about you, Republicans? Even National Review, a magazine that aspires to stand athwart history yelling stop, declared the War on Drugs lost in 1996.

Time has borne out their position.

The War on Drugs cannot be won. By now, everyone knows this. Every year that it is funded anyway, thousands of innocent people needlessly die as a result, and countless violent criminals obtain staggering wealth and power. Ending prohibition isn't a cure-all. The cartels it spawned to will try to adapt and survive, and drug abuse will remain a serious problem. Of course, throughout the War on Drugs, drug abuse has been a serious problem. It is time to try a different solution. It is time to try a policy that hasn't already failed.