A high-powered international commission has declared the war on drugs a failure. It urges governments to consider decriminalizing the use of drugs, especially marijuana, as a way to combat organized crime.
The report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, issued on June 2, attracted little attention and may simply gather dust like other such documents. But it is worth considering, not least because two of the panel’s outspoken members are former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and the eminent economist Paul A. Volcker, who after serving as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, continues as a one-man watch dog on banking and speculation policy.
They signed the report, they wrote in The New York Times, because they believe that “drug addiction is harmful to individuals, impairs health, and has adverse societal effects.” They said they wanted an effective program to deal with the problem.
The question is how to go about it. “For 40 years now,” they wrote, “our nation’s approach has been to criminalize the entire process of producing, transporting, selling and using drugs, with the exception of tobacco and alcohol. Our judgment, shared by other members of the commission, is that this approach has not worked, just as our national experiment with the prohibition of alcohol failed.”
Drugs are readily available. Crime rates remain high.
The commission listed unintended consequences of the present approach: growth of a huge criminal black market, using scarce resources for a vast law enforcement system, pushing drug protection to new and less enforced sites, pushing consumers to new addictive products, and turning drug users into social outcasts.
Instead, the commission would encourage open debate, confine prosecution to the those who run the business, not the users and people at the lower end of the distribution system, who are more victims than perpetrators. Across-the-board prosecution would be replaced by more therapeutic treatment of addiction and more respect for the human rights of all concerned.
The report noted that successful operations against organized criminals have had little lasting impact on drug prices and availability and that eradication of opium, cannabis or coca crops merely shoves illicit cultivation elsewhere.
Thus, the commission goes far beyond the mere decriminalization of marijuana, which by itself could reduce its street price but might spread its use. Portugal stopped prosecuting the use or possession of all drugs in 2001. While overall drug use kept pace with use in other countries, use of heroin, the Portuguese favorite, declined sharply and reduced the law-enforcement burden.
A clear lesson is that the present system needs serious rethinking. Treatment can be better than prosecution in dealing with addicts.