Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Drug War Deja Vu

On Thursday, a panel of eminent persons released a report calling on the world's governments to dramatically change how they deal with illicit drugs. "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world," concluded the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The 19 members of the commission include former presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, as well legendary former United States Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, former Canadian Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, and former secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, George Shultz. But for those who know the history of the war on drugs, and the central role played by the United Nations, the most striking name on the list is that of Kofi Annan. As secretary general of the United Nations in 1998, Kofi Annan presided over a special United Nations assembly on illicit drugs, which brought together leaders from all over the world. Shortly before that historic event, a letter of protest was delivered to the UN chief. "We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself," the letter began. Trying to stop the harms done by drug consumption by banning drugs had only succeeded in producing a massive international black market. "This industry has empowered organized criminals, corrupted governments at all levels, eroded internal security, stimulated violence, and distorted both economic markets and moral values." These were not the consequences "of drug use per se, but of decades of failed and futile drug war policies." "Mr. Secretary General," the letter concluded, "we appeal to you to initiate a truly open and honest dialogue regarding the failure of global drug policies -one in which fear, prejudice, and punitive prohibitions yield to common sense, science, public health, and human rights." The letter was signed by a remarkable list of eminent statesmen, officials, and intellectuals, including four former presidents from Latin America, Nobel laureates Milton Friedman and Adolfo Perez Esquivel, former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, and former U.S. secretary of state George Shulz. But Annan must have been impressed by one signatory in particular. It was Javier Perez de Cuellar, former United Nations secretary general. What did Annan think at the time? That's not clear. But the United Nations certainly did not "initiate a truly open and honest dialogue." In fact, the critics were dismissed out of hand. "There are naysayers who believe a global fight against illegal drugs is unwinnable," said Pino Arlacchi, the top UN drug official. "I say emphatically they are wrong." American officials were particularly contemptuous. U.S. president Bill Clinton's drug czar dismissed the signatories as airy intellectuals. The war on drugs was making great progress, he insisted. The UN special assembly went ahead, following a script largely written by the government of the United States. The war on drugs would not only continue, it would escalate, with the nations of the world -Canada very much included -agreeing to increase the already enormous sums they were spending on the suppression of drugs. And they set an ambitious goal: " ... eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant, and the opium poppy by the year 2008." A decade later, the world was not drug-free. In fact, the UN's own estimates showed marijuana consumption had risen 8.5 per cent, cocaine consumption had increased 27 per cent, and opiate consumption had soared 34.5 per cent. There were no consequences for this abject failure. In 2008, the UN hardly mentioned the goal it had set in 1998. The UN's drug agency even lied about it, and spun the data in order to claim success. But few journalists noticed or cared. They had long since forgotten an event that had been major news at the time. And governments weren't about to remind them. And so we're back to eminent people, including a former UN secretary general, pleading with the world's governments to reconsider. Only the names have changed. It would be appalling if this were the first instance in which the UN and the world's governments ignored criticism, spent vast sums of money on the suppression of drugs, and refused to take responsibility for -or even acknowledge -abject failure. But it's not the first instance. Far from it. The modern system of international drug control began 50 years ago, with the creation of the UN Convention which is still its foundation. There were critics in 1961, too. But they were dismissed as naysayers. Years passed. The amount of money spent on the war on drugs soared. So did drug production, consumption, and distribution. Richard Nixon coined the phrase "war on drugs" and further ramped up drug control efforts. The drug trade kept growing. Ronald Reagan launched his war on drugs. Things got worse. On and on it goes. Occasionally there's a new wrinkle, like the advent of the AIDS epidemic, which most epidemiologists agree was made much worse by the criminalization of drugs. But for the most part, only the names change. In the 1990s, Colombia was torn apart; now it's Mexico. Turkish opium production ebbed and Afghanistan's surged, providing a bountiful source of funding for the weapons that kill our soldiers. It's the same at the national level. The current Canadian debate between critics who want an approach focused on public health and prohibitionists who want to scale up law enforcement and punishment has happened many times before. The prohibitionists always win. And their policies always fail. In the early 1960s, harsh new punishments, including severe mandatory minimum sentences, came into force. Shortly after, drug trafficking and consumption soared. "Research has almost uniformly failed to show that intensified policing or sanctions have reduced either drug prevalence or drug-related harm," concluded Peter Reuter, one of the world's leading experts on drug policy. No matter. The Harper government opposes Vancouver's supervised injection site and any other attempt to try something new. Instead, it will soon pass new mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. Only the names change. "Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won," concluded the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The commission's report, complete with Kofi Annan's signature, has been given to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. It would be nice to think history will not repeat yet again.