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A former Colombian president whose government brought down Pablo Escobar, the world's most notorious drug lord, is now a tireless advocate for the need to reform national and global drug-control policies.

Cesar Gaviria, who held office in Colombia from 1990 to 1994 during the height of the cartels' power, advocates an alternative approach to the war on drugs – away from prohibition and penalization, and towards demand reduction and decriminalization. His voice adds legitimacy to the growing global demand for new solutions to this issue, as few leaders have lived through the "narco-terrorism" that plagued Mr. Gaviria's presidency.

The goal to completely eradicate the use of illicit substances has been a costly failure with severe negative consequences on crime rates. Prohibition has been a defeat by any measure. There are now more consumers, and larger and more powerful criminal organizations profiting from the sale of illicit drugs than there were 40 years ago.

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"The war on drugs began under President Nixon and the goal was to live in a drug-free world. At the time people believed this was the right policy," Mr. Gaviria told me. "But we have to conclude that we cannot stop the flow of drugs. The goal of a drug-free world is totally unreachable."

Mr. Gaviria's point of view is refreshing. And he is one of many experts – including George Shultz, a former U.S. secretary of state, Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and Otto Perez Molina, a retired general and President of Guatemala – who now believe that prohibition actually increases violence. "Nobody dies of a marijuana overdose, but plenty are killed by the cartels," said Mr. Gaviria, who was also head of the Organization of American States from 1994-2004.

Countries that have experimented with alternate approaches, such as Portugal, where personal drug consumption has been decriminalized since 2000 and users are treated for their addictions, have seen considerable success. The number of addicts who have undergone rehabilitation has increased in this country, and the number of HIV-infected addicts has decreased. Uruguay is devising a new set of legal and commercial tools to supplant a violent market in narcotics, as the marijuana regulation bill makes its way through Parliament. The goal is to improve public health, put criminal traffickers out of business, and raise tax revenues. "We don't defend marijuana or any other addiction. But worse than any drug is trafficking," Pres. Jose Mujica told the Guardian recently. Dozens of U.S. states have decriminalized or ceased penalizing marijuana users, while Washington and Colorado now have a cannabis tax. In Canada, while marijuana remains illegal, the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs this year recommended they should have the option to ticket, rather than arrest, those nabbed for simple possession under 30 grams.

Each country must develop its own drug-reform policies, tailored to its own unique set of political, economic and social circumstances. Mr. Gaviria correctly shies away from a blanket endorsement of "legalization," noting that it is a trigger word that can polarize people and impede reform efforts. "I prefer the word 'regulation' of drugs. The main issue is reducing the size of the illicit drug business. Drugs are a part of human nature," he said during a speech on board National Geographic Explorer, where he was a guest speaker on Lindblad Expeditions' Epic South America trip this fall.

His approach echoes that of the OAS, which produced a groundbreaking 2013 report that stopped short of uniform recommendations and instead advised a re-focus on treatment and education.

Mr. Gaviria has intimate knowledge of the drug war: back in the 1980s his country was terrorized by the rival Medellin and Cali drug cartels. He took office just after the 1989 death of Luis Carlos Galan, one of three presidential candidates to be assassinated, allegedly by the cartels. Mr. Gaviria was a target on more than one occasion, and his life, like that of so many other politicians, judges, prosecutors, journalists and others, was often in danger. The drug cartels killed hundreds of civilians, policemen and state officials and bombed government buildings: "So we decided we had to fight back. Colombia was an unliveable place. We had no choice."

His government oversaw the arrest and imprisonment of Mr. Escobar, and then the ultimate killing of the infamous cartel head on Dec. 2, 1993 in Medellin, following his escape from prison. Mr. Escobar was shot dead as he fled across a rooftop. The 18-month operation to capture him involved intelligence agents and special forces from the United States, Israel and the U.K. His government, with international support, ultimately succeeded in dismantling the Medellin cartel and killing or arresting 20 high-level members.

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"Escobar killed more people than died during 9/11," recalled Mr. Gaviria. "And looking for Escobar was like hunting for Bin Laden. He had the complicity of underground networks."

And yet, in spite the success of this operation, along with the gradual strengthening of Colombia's institutions, and the restoration of the rule of law, the drug problem did not go away.

Billions of dollars were spent in Colombia on coca eradication, with some success. Today the South American country of 40 million produces about 42 per cent of the world's coca, compared with 74 per cent in 2000. (Twenty-four states in Colombia produce and grow cocaine.)

However, production of coca in Peru has increased by 40 per cent during this same time period. This is evidence of what experts call the balloon effect, where efforts to squeeze out production in one country only cause it to bulge elsewhere. Similarly, drug cartels have re-located their operations from Colombia to Mexico, where more than 60,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the last six years.

"After spending billions of dollars, we have to conclude that we cannot stop the flow of drugs. The goal should be to bring back security. There is no one left defending prohibition," said Mr. Gaviria.

Clearly, the issue is a complex one. But when the man whose administration brought down Escobar is advocating experimental approaches to drug control, it represents the beginning of the end of the war on drugs.

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Marina Jimenez is president of the Canadian Council for the Americas.

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story identified Otto Perez Molina as a former president of Guatemala. He is its current president.

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