11 March 2016
By Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Cesar Gaviria and Ernesto Zedillo
Outdated drug policies around the world have resulted in soaring
drug- related violence, overstretched criminal justice systems,
runaway corruption and mangled democratic institutions. After
reviewing the evidence, consulting drug policy experts and examining
our own failures on this front while in office, we came to an
unavoidable conclusion: The “war on drugs” is an unmitigated disaster.
For nearly a decade, we have urged governments and international
bodies to promote a more humane, informed and effective approach to
dealing with “illegal” drugs. We saw a major breakthrough a few years
ago, when the United Nations agreed to convene a special session of
the General Assembly to review global drug policy. It is scheduled to
begin April 19.
Unfortunately, this historic event – the first of its kind in 18
years – appears to be foundering even before it gets off the ground.
What was supposed to be an open, honest and data-driven debate about
drug policies has turned into a narrowly conceived closed-door affair.
In the lead-up to next month’s session, the U. N. Commission on
Narcotic Drugs in Vienna held a series of preparatory meetings with
its 53 member countries. The commission took responsibility for
crafting a declaration to be adopted by all 193 U. N. members of the
General Assembly, and should finish next week.
But most of these commission-led negotiations have been neither
transparent nor inclusive. Input from key U. N. agencies working on
health, gender, human rights and development – and the majority of U.
N. member states – was excluded. Likewise, dozens of civil society
groups from around the world were shut out of the meetings.
Further, the draft declaration represents a setback rather than a
step forward. It does not acknowledge the comprehensive failure of
the current drug control system to reduce supply or demand. Instead,
it perpetuates the criminalization of producers and consumers. The
declaration proposes few practical solutions to improve human rights
or public health. In short, it offers little hope of progress to the
hundreds of millions of people suffering under our failed global drug
If the U. N. wants to seriously confront the drug problem in a way
that actually promotes the health and welfare of humanity, here are
the proposals the General Assembly should adopt.
First, all U. N. member states should end the criminalization and
incarceration of drug users – an essential step toward strengthening
public health, upholding human rights and ensuring fundamental
freedoms. Second, all governments should immediately abolish capital
punishment for drug-related offenses. It is a medieval practice that
should be stamped out once and for all. Third, U. N. member states
must empower the World Health Organization to review the scheduling
system of drugs on the basis of science, not ideology.
Most important, diplomats attending the special session on drugs next
month must confront the obvious failure of most existing drug laws.
The only way to wrest control of the drug trade from organized crime,
reduce violence and curb corruption is for governments to control and
This is not as radical as it sounds. Innovative experiments in drug
regulation are underway around the world, and they offer important
lessons to those who are prepared to listen.
Switzerland’s national health plan, for example, now supports heroin-
assisted treatment and maintenance doses for addicts in order to
reduce harm to users. Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in
2001, with significant crime reduction and public health benefits,
including decreasing rates of HIV transmission.
Dramatic changes in drug policy are also taking place across the
Americas. In the U. S., 23 states have legalized marijuana for
medicinal purposes and four for recreational use. Most Latin American
governments are taking steps, albeit timid ones, to decriminalize the
consumption of some drugs. Uruguay has gone the furthest: it
regulated its cannabis market from production to distribution to
sale, with human rights at the center of the country’ s strategy.
There is still time to get the U. N. special session back on track,
and we hope that will happen. But even if the gathering does not live
up to its full potential, we encourage heads of state and governments
to test approaches to drugs that are based in scientific evidence and
local realities. That’s the only way to arrive at an effective global
drug control system that puts people’s lives, safety and dignity first.