September/October 2012

“Opposition to Drug Prohibition Gains Steam

Last November, the Cato Institute hosted a conference, "Ending the Global War on Drugs," where international leaders and prominent scholars came together to review the widespread impact of drug prohibition. In his closing address that day, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil, suggested a "paradigm shift" in the current battle, offering a way forward "from just repression to a more humane and comprehensive approach."

This spring, the Wall Street Journal noted that a transformation may already be underway. At a regional conference intended to tout U.S. trade policies in Colombia, the administration met with unexpected resistance against its global efforts to stem the use of narcotics. "The uprising on drug policy is led by some of Washington's closest and best-funded allies in Latin America" — states men who, according to the Journal, "say the current approach isn't working, after hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of drug-related murders."

The revolt is just the latest acknowledgment that the mounting costs of the war on drugs are becoming intolerable. Last year,the Global Commission on Drug Policy — a 19- member panel which included former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, former secretary of state George Shultz, and former Fed chairman Paul Volcker — released a ground breaking report. "The global war on drugs has failed," they concluded, "with devastating consequences."

Across the world, leadersare beginning to search for alternatives to this endless battle. In a 2009 Cato study, best-selling author Glenn Greenwald described one such option: Portugal's 2001 decision to decriminalize all drugs, including cocaine and heroine. He concluded that none of the nightmare scenarios predicted by critics — from rampant increases in usage among the young tothe transformation of Lisbonin to a haven for "drug tourists" — had occurred in the seven years since the policy shift. To the contrary, usage rates remained roughly the same, while drug-related pathologies — from sexually transmitted diseases to deaths after overdose — decreased dramatically.

The study quickly made international waves. Earlier this year, Portugal'stop drug official himself acknowledged its impact. "Greenwald's report has been the starting point of the enormous visibility of the Portuguese policies," João Goulão wrote in a February e-mail. Although prohibition has manifestly failed to stem illicit drug use, it has generated enormous costs with perverse outcomes. Throughout the world, leaders are beginning to acknowledge this fact and demand change.

As Moises Naim, former editor of Foreign Policy, told the Journal, "I think 2012 will go down in history as the year when the pillars of Washington's drug policy began to erode."