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 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT