Skip to main content

Kofi Annan: Stop 'war on drugs'

By Kofi Annan and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Special to CNN
updated 7:41 AM EST, Tue November 5, 2013
A woman shows pictures of relatives missing in Mexico's drug war at a rally of mothers whose children have disappeared.
A woman shows pictures of relatives missing in Mexico's drug war at a rally of mothers whose children have disappeared.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Hundreds of thousands die from drug-related disease and violence; millions jailed
  • They say we need humane, health-based policies; repressive methods don't work
  • They say countries need to try regulating some drugs legally to stop organized crime
  • Writers: Nations need practical policies rather than ideological approaches

Editor's note: Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil, are members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

(CNN) -- Each year, hundreds of thousands of people around the world die from preventable drug-related disease and violence. Millions of users are arrested and thrown in jail. Globally, communities are blighted by drug-related crime. Citizens see huge amounts of their taxes spent on harsh policies that are not working.

But despite this clear evidence of failure, there is a damaging reluctance worldwide to consider a fresh approach. The Global Commission on Drug Policy is determined to help break this century-old taboo. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, our first report -- The War on Drugs -- demonstrated how repressive approaches to containing drugs have failed.

Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan
Fernando Henrique Cardoso
Fernando Henrique Cardoso

We called on governments to adopt more humane and effective ways of controlling and regulating drugs. We recommended that the criminalization of drug use should be replaced by a public health approach. We also appealed for countries to carefully test models of legal regulation as a means to undermine the power of organized crime, which thrives on illicit drug trafficking.

There is, at last, some evidence of change. Officials from Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Uruguay have assumed the lead in initiating reforms to drug policy in their own countries. These efforts have had knock-on effects across the neighborhood. In 2013, the Organization of American States (OAS) issued a landmark report on drug policy proposing alternative forms of drug regulation.

The findings of the Global Commission resonated across Europe as well. Many European states serve as a model for a health-oriented approach to drug policy. In several countries, evidence-based prevention, harm reduction and treatment are endorsed -- in sharp contrast to solely repressive approaches adopted in other parts of the world.

Some of the dozens of portraits of people missing in Mexico\'s drug war are displayed during a recent protest in Mexico City.\n
Some of the dozens of portraits of people missing in Mexico's drug war are displayed during a recent protest in Mexico City.

Drug policy reform is going viral. Other regions are joining the debate about new and progressive ways of dealing with drugs. For example, in New Zealand, proposals are being drafted to regulate synthetic drugs. In West Africa, where drug trafficking and organized crime is threatening democracy and governance, brave leaders have launched a West African Commission on drug trafficking and its consequences.

Even the United States, among the staunchest of all prohibitionist states, is enacting new approaches to drug policy. For the first time, a majority of Americans support regulating cannabis for adult consumption. And in the states of Colorado and Washington, new bills were approved to make this a reality. There are signs that these experiences could multiply further still.

All countries will have an opportunity to review the international drug control regime in a few years' time. The special session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2016 will provide a great opportunity for an honest and informed debate on drug policy. We hope that this debate will encourage drug policies that are based on what actually works in practice rather than what ideology dictates in theory.

This opportunity must not be lost. In Vienna, where the international community regularly assembles to review progress on drug control, we urge enlightened leadership to ensure that the world looks forward. We cannot remain locked into the old mantra that the war on drugs can be won only with more effort and expense.

With a complex issue like drug policy, of course, there is no single simple answer or one-size-fits-all solution. Countries must have the space to define and develop progressive, open-minded policies best tailored to their own realities and needs.

But today, we know what works and what does not. It is time for a smarter approach to drug policy. Putting people's health and safety first is an imperative, not an afterthought.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kofi Annan and Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT