Four decades after President Nixon declared a “war on drugs”, US states have legalised the sale of marijuana and most Americans support legalisation.
Across the world, drug laws are being relaxed, from Uruguay to Portugal, Jamaica and the Czech Republic.
After many years prosecuting drugs offences as an Assistant US Attorney, growing frustration with the approach inspire
The US prison system is a disaster. There’s virtually no rehabilitation. Locking up low level individuals who have drug problems or who have limited other options is not effective, because they go to jail, they come out, they get involved with drugs again, and they go right back to it.
The war itself is at a draw- which will be maintained indefinitely unless there’s a dramatic change in our approach to drugs and drug trafficking.
Former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria worked on the Global Commission on Drug Policy report in 2011 which called on states to decriminalise drugs.
“Our recommendation is regulation for everything. That’s what Portugal did.
“If you look at the last 50 years, what has been done? In the US, 600,000 people in jail, £27 billion of spending a year. The highest rates of consumption of the whole world. You have to say that it doesn’t work. It’s a failed policy, and public opinion knows that.
“Ten years ago it was unthinkable that the US would move massively to the legalisation of cannabis. That taboo has been broken. In the US, a majority of people are talking about approving legalisation of marijuana.”
He cites the example of Uruguay, the first country to legalise the marijuana trade.
“All Latin America’s looking at Uruguay. It’s a country that also looks how to deal with the production, with the supply of the marijuana that is in the state hands. I don’t expect any major set back of the policy that the Uruguayans have put in place.”
“From the beginning in 1961, the objective of the UN Conventions has been to live in a world free of drugs, but it’s a utopia. It’s something unreachable. It’s not to recognise human nature.”
Professor Peter Reuter from the school of public policy at the University of Maryland has been a leading academic in the field of drugs policy for decades.
“The need for national leaders to stand up and talk about the scourge of drugs, and signal to the population that being tough on drugs was a priority was an important part of the war itself.
“There’s going to be less and less of that. I think there’s going to be a change both in tone and substance, so the ‘war on drugs’ will become a less and less plausible metaphor for describing policy. I think it’s going to be a public health rhetoric for the foreseeable future.
“I do believe that we have in a sense had an experiment with trying to be very aggressive about controlling drugs through use of prohibition. And we have a sense that that did not work well. And so we’re now trying to find better ways of managing the problem, and I think that’s welcome.
“If you look at the number of people who are in prison for drug offences, at least in the US, that’s an important indicator of the change in real policy, and those numbers are starting to go down. Not dramatically, but they are definitely going down, and many states are making changes that are likely to accelerate that decline.”
As drug laws soften he argues the question of regulation becomes key, as happened when gambling was legalised:
“Lottery play was always seen as a bad thing, you legalised it because you wanted to take money away from organised crime, but the result was that the state lotteries became the most aggressive promoters.
“You have slogans like ‘Why be a mug and work when you can play the lottery and win easily?’, just the kind of slogan you’d associate with the worst commercial promotion, but done by the state.
“Alcohol is still heavily promoted, and it’s promoted in states that have state liquor monopolies, and we’ve only recently really been able to restrict smoking promotions.
“You cannot with a straight face say that marijuana legalisation won’t lead to more marijuana dependence.
“Choose your problem. There is no solution. Use of psychoactive drugs is a social problem like a whole lot of other social problems. We manage it. And we may manage it better or worse, but the notion that we solve a problem is simplistic. We’re simply managing a problem.”