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In this Oct. 7, 2009 photo, an Afghan opium addict, who has lost his mental balance, looks on as he is chained to the wall at the Mia Ali Baba Shrine, on the outskirts of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Altaf Qadri/AP)
In this Oct. 7, 2009 photo, an Afghan opium addict, who has lost his mental balance, looks on as he is chained to the wall at the Mia Ali Baba Shrine, on the outskirts of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

War on drugs 'a failure,' international panel declares Add to ...

World consumption of cocaine and opiates has shot up in the past decade. Cartel violence rages in Mexico. West Africa has become a cocaine-trafficking hub.

A high-powered panel of former heads of states and United Nations officials says it is time for governments to find new ways to deal with the world's drug problem.

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"The fact is that the war on drugs is a failure," former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said Thursday at the unveiling of a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Along with Mr. Cardoso, the commission includes former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria, former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Canadian Louise Arbour, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

WHAT THE REPORT RECOMMENDS

Don't treat users as criminals

There are an estimated 250 million drug users in the world, according to UN estimates. "We simply cannot treat them all as criminals," the report says.

The commission notes that countries that rely on repression when dealing with users of injectable drugs, such as Russia and Thailand, end up with high rates of HIV transmission. Britain, Switzerland, Germany and Australia, which have harm-reduction strategies such as needle exchanges, injection sites or legal heroin programs, however, have much lower rates of HIV among injected-drug users.

In Britain, opiate and crack cocaine users that received drug treatment in the community were 48 per cent less likely to reoffend, the report says.

Don't waste time nabbing the small fry

From farmers to drug mules to street pushers, the trafficking of illegal narcotics relies on a wide pyramid of people. The report argues that going after the smaller players in the drug trade consumes a lot of policing resources without disrupting supply.

"We should not treat all those arrested for trafficking as equally culpable - many are coerced into their actions, or are driven to desperate measures through their own addiction or economic situation," the report says.

It suggests alternative sentences for small-scale or first-time dealers who are likely to be addicts themselves. Similarly, providing suppliers with alternative livelihoods, such as legal crops, is more effective than just destroying the fields of coca or poppy farmers.

Decriminalize or give legal access to some drugs to undercut organized crime

The report praises the way Portugal and Switzerland approached their drug problem.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the use and possession of all illicit drugs. In the ensuing decade, there was a slight rise in drug use but at the same pace as other countries where drugs remained criminalized.

Since 1994, hard-core addicts in Switzerland are able to get measured doses of heroin at government-approved clinics. The Swiss program has been credited with reducing crime and ending Zurich's infamous "Needle Park." As junkies found legal sources for their addiction, the report says, criminal suppliers became less visible and heroin less accessible for casual or novice users.

REACTIONS FROM CANADA, THE UNITED STATES AND MEXICO

Justice Canada spokeswoman Carole Saindon:

"The Government of Canada continues its efforts under the National Anti-Drug Strategy, which focuses on prevention and access to treatment for those with drug dependencies, while at the same time getting tough on drug dealers and producers who threaten the safety of our youth and communities."

"Making drugs more available - as this report suggests - will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe."

Rafael Lemaitre, Communications Director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy:

"Legalization remains a non-starter in the Obama administration because research shows that illegal drug use is associated with voluntary treatment admissions, fatal drugged driving accidents, mental illness, and emergency room admissions."

Statement from the Mexican government's National Security Council:

"Taking partial measures is insufficient and inefficient because it is a transnational phenomenon, with an international market structure that needs to be analyzed in a much broader context than in a single country."

"Increasing the consumption of drugs in major markets, without measures that impact the market and the supply chain, generates greater economic incentives for criminals."

"Legalization won't stop organized crime, its turf wars or its violence. Nor will it strengthen our security institutions and law enforcement. To equate organized crime in Mexico with drug trafficking is to forget that organized crime commits other offences such as kidnapping, extortion and robbery."

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