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Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group Ltd and proponent of a new approach to the war on drugs. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)
Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group Ltd and proponent of a new approach to the war on drugs. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Globe Editorial

It's time to transform the global war on drugs Add to ...

The global war on drugs is based on false assumptions and antiquated laws that do not reflect contemporary research about drug use, production and markets. It is time to cast aside dogma, and transform global drug strategy with policies based on evidence, not ideology.

At the recent Summit of the Americas, Latin America's leaders pressed Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama to study alternatives to the failed war on drugs; even Mr. Harper, architect of mandatory minimums for minor drug offences at home, acknowledged the current approach isn't working. The 31 hemispheric leaders agreed to appoint a panel to study reform of global drug policies.

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The panel could spare itself the trouble and endorse the groundbreaking report of a blue-ribbon Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include George Shultz, a former U.S. secretary of state, Paul Volcker, the former chairman of The Federal Reserve Board, several former Latin American presidents, and the entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, a director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

“Drugs are freely available right now to all the drug users and addicts in your country. They get them by giving money to the criminal underworld,” said Mr. Branson.

There are 250 million illicit drugs users in the world today, of whom 10 per cent are dependent on drugs. Consumption of opiates has increased by 34 per cent, and cocaine use has gone up by 27 per cent, from 1998 to 2008. Eradication of coca crops in one country merely displaces cultivation, and drug cartels continue to make billions of dollars and are more powerful than ever.

Increased arrests and law enforcement pressures on drug markets are associated with a spike – not a decrease – in violent crimes and homicides. Moreover, decriminalization policies and treatment of addicts, as opposed to incarceration, have led to a decrease in drug use and associated petty crime in countries such as Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands. Opioid substitution with drugs such as methadone reduces mortality, HIV and hepatitis infections and heroin use, studies have found. In contrast, there are higher levels of use in countries with a “zero-tolerance” approach to illicit drugs; the rate of cannabis use in the U.S. is 14 per cent, versus 5 per cent in the Netherlands, where licensed coffee shops sell small amounts of marijuana.

Yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the false assumption that users are deterred by punishment is still invoked with great conviction by many, including Mr. Harper.

The knowledge that prohibition is not achieving its objective must be the starting point for any reforms. This is not being “soft on drugs.”

And reforms won't alienate voters; in the U.S. and Canada, the level of popular support for decriminalizing marijuana is rising. Indeed, 14 U.S. states have already decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, fining instead of jailing users. In 2010, Toronto became the first city in the world to endorse the Vienna Declaration, which states that drug prohibition has been a costly failure with severe negative consequences on crime rates and on public health.

Scientists now understand much more about drug use than they did in 1971, when Richard Nixon first declared a war on drugs. A 2007 study measuring the actual harm caused by different drugs found that alcohol was the third most harmful substance, following heroin and cocaine. Cannabis is 10th on the list, behind tobacco. And yet tobacco and alcohol are legal, while cannabis is not. Illicit drug use accounts for 250,000 deaths a year, compared with alcohol, which kills 2.3 million people. Why is this new knowledge not reflected in how drugs are classified and laws are enforced?

The global drug problem can no longer be viewed as a war to be won. Indicators of success should not be the number of arrests of small-time users and of seizures of marijuana plants, but a reduction in the corruption generated by drug markets, drug dependence, overdose deaths and HIV transmission among drug users, concludes the report.

“Many political leaders and public figures acknowledge privately that repressive strategies have only made the drug problem worse,” said Mr. Branson. “It took 14 years for America's leaders to repeal Prohibition. After 50 years of the failed drug war, it is time for today's leaders to find the courage to speak out.”

The global commission has done the research. The challenge will be to persuade leaders such as Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama to develop policies that focus on non-penal ways to curtail consumption, and look for evidence-based solutions, instead of clinging to old rhetoric that has only enriched a criminal underclass and caused great harm to many lives.

Sir Richard Branson took questions from Globe readers about the global drug war. To read his answers, click here.

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