The Great Debate

Addressing global scourge of illicit drugs

Discussions about illicit drugs can often hinge on misunderstandings about terms. This confusion is glaring when words such as “decriminalization,” where drug possession is no longer criminalized, and “legalization,” legalizing the sale of drugs like heroin or cocaine, are used interchangeably.

There is also confusion about the effectiveness of the 1961, 1971 and 1988 international drug conventions, which regulate our global approach to drug control. Those who label the conventions as ineffective now talk about liberalizing drug laws and amending the regulations. But the system is working — especially when it comes to health.

The conventions have helped limit the threat of illicit drugs. Global opium production fell by roughly 80 percent over the last century, even as the earth’s population quadrupled.

The 1961 Single Convention was created to control the use of drugs for the protection of the “health and welfare of mankind.” Since its creation, it has emphasized health – not just handcuffs and law enforcement.

For this focus to succeed, we must ensure that drug users are treated with respect, not marginalized or discriminated against. The conventions are flexible enough to offer evidence-based therapy to those who are addicted, as well as rehabilitation, education and social reintegration.

California vote and Mexican drug cartels

What would legalizing marijuana in California, America’s most populous state, mean to the drug cartels whose fight for access to American markets have turned parts of Mexico into war zones? Shrinking profits? Certainly. Less violence? Maybe.

These topics are being raised as the U.S. heads towards Nov. 2 mid-term elections which in California include a ballot initiative, Proposition 19, providing for marijuana to be treated like alcohol and tobacco for Californians over 21. A vote in favour would end 73 years of prohibition and have enormous political impact not only on the rest of America but also on the long-running global war on drugs.

Experts on the issue have been working overtime and the latest of a string of academic studies, out this week, came from the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank. The voluminous paper is entitled: Reducing Drug Trafficking and Violence in Mexico – Would Legalizing Marijuana in California Help? The study’s four authors, all prominent authorities on the illegal drug business, hedged their answer.

In drug war, the beginning of the end?


Between 1971, when Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, and 2008, the latest year for which official figures are available, American law enforcement officials made more than 40 million drug arrests. That number roughly equals the population of California, or of the 33 biggest U.S. cities.

Forty million arrests speak volumes about America’s longest war, which was meant to throttle drug production at home and abroad, cut supplies across the borders, and keep people from using drugs. The marathon effort has boosted the prison industry but failed so obviously to meet its objectives that there is a growing chorus of calls for the legalization of illicit drugs.

In the United States, that brings together odd bedfellows. Libertarians in the tea party movement, for example, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of former police officers, narcotics agents, judges and prosecutors who favor legalizing all drugs, not only marijuana, the world’s most widely-used illicit drug.