Skip to main content

Kofi Annan: Stop 'war on drugs'

By Kofi Annan and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Special to CNN
November 5, 2013 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
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
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT