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Decriminalising Drugs Moves into the Mainstream

NEW YORK, Jun 2 2011 (IPS) - Several years ago, anyone calling for an end to Washington’s “war on drugs” would be considered a heretic. Today, high- level politicians and business people, backed by thousands of regular citizens, are doing just that.

“The idea that there could be a mass public campaign for decriminalisation, because I didn’t know anything about the issue, I thought that was a fringe perspective,” Ricken Patel, co-founder and executive director of the global web movement, told IPS.

He presented a global petition calling for an end to the drug war to the Global Commission on Drug Policy Thursday. On Friday, he will meet with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to present him with the same petition.

The Global Commission, whose members include former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, and the former presidents of Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, and Switzerland, released a groundbreaking report Thursday calling for a paradigm shift in international drug policy.

“The war on drugs has claimed countless lives, it’s cost hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, it’s funneling trillions of dollars into organised crime – which poses a profound threat to our governments, to our societies. It’s a brutal and senseless war and it needs to stop,” Patel told IPS.

In its 2011 report, the Global Commission endorses approaching drug use as a public health problem as well as examining alternatives to the incarceration of drug users, farmers, and petty sellers. But it also recommends more revolutionary approaches like decriminalisation of drug use and the possibility of legal regulation.

“Now is the time to break the taboo on discussion of all drug policy options, including alternatives to drug prohibition,” said former Colombian president César Gaviria.

The report also calls on governments to offer health and treatment services to drug users, to increase harm reduction measures like syringe access, and to ensure a variety of treatment methods, including methadone and heroin-assisted treatment.

The world must “respect the human rights of people who use drugs”, says the report.

“We need a new approach, one that takes the power out of the hands of organised crime and treats people with addiction problems like patients, not criminals,” said Richard Branson, a Global Commission member and founder of the Virgin Group.

“We need our leaders, including business people, looking at alternative, fact-based approaches,” he added.

Former Brazilian president Fernando Cardoso said that the commission is not calling for an end to the fight against drugs. “It’s not peace instead of war,” he clarified, “it’s a more intelligent way to fight.”

Ruth Dreifuss, the former president of Switzerland and minister of home affairs, highlighted the plight of farmers in the developing world. For many of them, producing poppy seeds and coca leaves is “the only way out of misery”.

Currently, the only solution for these farmers is to switch to alternative crops. “But there are not a lot of alternatives,” Dreifuss told IPS, adding, “a regulated market for these people would be the best way.”

Regulating, rather than criminalising, drug production in the developing world would provide safer environments for farmers, “independent of crime, of Taliban, and so on,” Dreifuss said.

Critics of this new position fear that decriminalisation will lead to a rise in drug consumption, but Cardoso and Dreifuss pointed to Europe’s success stories.

Portugal was the first European country to decriminalise illicit drug use and possession. According to the Commission’s report, that country saw a fall in the use of heroin, which was the government’s main concern, and no variation in the use of other drugs compared to the rest of Europe.

In Switzerland, officials have based drug policies on public health instead of criminalisation since the 1980s, and these policies – including controversial heroin substitution programmes – have led to an overall fall in heroin addiction in the country.

“Overwhelming evidence from Europe, Canada, and Australia now demonstrates the human and social benefits both of treating drug addiction as a health rather than criminal justice problem and of reducing reliance on prohibitionist polices,” said Dreifuss.

That is why the commission is calling on the United Nations to apply these policies worldwide.

“It’s not that we don’t want to obey the treaties,” Marion Caspers- Merk, former state secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health, told IPS, referring to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

“We want to open the debate that our policy has proven better results than the policy we have implemented via the U.N. treaties right now,” she said, adding, “We would have a better result with a better policy.”

How likely is the commission to succeed in changing the current approach?

“I think it’s a good sign that Kofi Annan has joined the group,” Caspers-Merk told IPS, noting other high-level commission members like the executive director of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, Michel Kazatchkine.

She also cited the World Health Organization. “They support our perspective,” she said, “and therefore I think we have a good chance to influence the process.”

And the commission has the backing of the nearly 600,000 people from every country in the world that have signed the Avaaz petition online.

“That is important,” said Cardoso, noting the international acceptance of the petition. “It’s not just America, or Brazil, or Columbia, but all of humanity,” he said.

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