NEW YORK – A high-level international panel slammed the war on drugs as a failure Thursday and called on governments to undertake experiments to decriminalize the use of drugs, especially marijuana, to undermine the power of organized crime.
Compiled by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the report concludes that criminalization and repressive measures have failed with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.
"Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won," the report said.
The 19-member commission includes former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, Greece's prime minister, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former U.S. officials George P. Schultz and Paul Volcker, the writers Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, and British billionaire Richard Branson.
At a news conference launching the report, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who chairs the commission, said ending the war on drugs does not imply complete liberalization.
"The fact is that the war on drugs is a failure," he said. "Being a failure is not saying that you have nothing to do with drugs. You have to act. The drug are infiltrating the local power in several parts of the world. Corruption is increasing and the consumption of drugs is also increasing."
Cardoso said the commission's goal is "to open a debate and to say: Stop the war on drugs and let's be more constructive in trying to reduce the consumption."
Instead of punishing drug users, the commission argues that governments should "end the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others."
The commission urged governments to experiment "with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens." It said this recommendation applies especially to marijuana.
Cardoso said the commission called for regulation rather than legalization "because we don't think that's the moment's come for legalization." Even regulation and decriminalization are not a solution, he said, unless they are accompanied by information, publicity campaigns, and improved health care and treatment.
Branson, speaking at the press conference, highlighted the drug wars' high cost.
"It's estimated that over one trillion have been spent on fighting this unwinnable battle," Branson said. "The irony is that a regulated market — one that is tightly controlled, one that would offer support not prison to those with drug problems — would cost tax payers much less money."
The report called for drug policies based on methods empirically proven to reduce crime, lead to better health and promote economic and social development.
The commission is especially critical of the United States, which its members say must lead changing its anti-drug policies from being guided by anti-crime approaches to ones rooted in health care and human rights.
"We hope this country (the U.S.) at least starts to think there are alternatives," former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria told The Associated Press by phone. "We don't see the U.S. evolving in a way that is compatible with our (countries') long-term interests."
The office of White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said the report was misguided.
"Drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated. Making drugs more available — as this report suggests — will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe," Office of National Drug Control Policy spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said.
That office cites statistics showing declines in U.S. drug use compared to 30 years ago, along with a more recent 46 percent drop in current cocaine use among young adults over the last five years.
The report cited U.N. estimates that opiate use increased 34.5 percent worldwide and cocaine 27 percent from 1998 to 2008, while the use of cannabis, or marijuana, was up 8.5 percent.
Gaviria responded to the White House criticism saying there is agreement with the U.S. on reducing consumption, and the drug czar agrees that the phrase "war on drugs" doesn't help produce good policy.
"But they need to go further," Gaviria told reporters. "They need to mobilize resources from law enforcement ... (and) to move from the jail system to education, treatment and the health system. Just changing language is not enough."
Several European members of the commission cited evidence from Portugal, Germany, Switzerland and other countries that shifting from criminalizing drug users to treating and supporting them has reduced drug deaths and has either stabilized or reduced drug use.
Marion Caspers-Merk, a former German health official, said there are four pillars to tackle drug use — invest in prevention, invest in better treatment, implement "harm reduction programs" like methodone and needle exchanges, and law enforcement.
At the press conference, the commission received an online petition collected by the global campaigning organization Avaaz and signed by 544,961 people from countries all over the world calling for an end to the war on drugs and backing its recommendations.
Associated Press Writer Jonathan M. Katz contributed to this report