Wednesday, June 05, 2013

12 heads of state who support drug policy reform

The commitment of heads of state is crucial in pushing for drug policy reform since they have the power to challenge the current prohibitionist framework at its political roots.

Sadly, when in office many key players like Barack Obama and David Cameron seem afflicted by post-election amnesia when it comes to rethinking the War on Drugs. Indeed, historically, the issue has been taboo and thus it was that was only former presidents were willing to speak out.

Nevertheless, in the absence of much significant engagement on the side of Western consumer countries, Latin and Central American presidents have taken the lead in challenging the prohibitionist status quo. And what is increasingly encouraging is that more and more incumbent political leaders are now daring to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Below is a selection of some of the more prominent past and present heads of state who are not afraid to champion reform, divided up into 'Incumbents' and 'Formers'.


José Mujica, ‘the world’s poorest president' who famously donates 90% of his salary to charity caused quite a stir back in October 2012 when he declared that Uruguay will be legalising the production and supply of cannabis under monopoly state control. When asked about his motives he replied that "The traditional approach hasn’t worked [...] Someone has to be the first”

Since then, he has announced that the plan has been delayed due to lower than hoped public support in ongoing polling. Nevertheless he remains committed to the reform and the Bill continues to make its way through the Uruguayan parliament.

He hopes to go ahead with this groundbreaking policy when the population understands the intent of the measure, underlining that "The majority has to be in the street and the people have to understand that with shootings and putting people in prison we are giving a gift to drug traffickers."

Juan Manuel Santos. Colombia’s president is an increasingly vocal proponent of reform, who, since coming to power, has drawn significant attention to the suffering of Latin American producer countries, the unintended consequences of current interenational drug control. He is now a major advocate calling for a rethink of the failed War on Drugs. 

In contrast to his Uruguayan counterpart, he rules out any possibility of unilateral action on the issue on Colombia’s side, instead calling on the international community to address the obvious failure of the War on Drugs and stressing that responsibility has to be shared among producing, transit and consuming countriesIn his calls for a debate he is much bolder than other politicians, bringing up both the legalisation of cannabis and perhaps even cocaine as a subject for international discussion. 

Laura Chinchilla, president of Costa Rica, joined the group of incumbent presidents calling for a rethink of the prevailing prohibitionist approach stating that drug legalization in Central America merits a 'serious' debate in order to reduce the crime and violence spreading through the region, even if it runs up against U.S. opposition; once more drawing on the fact that Central Americans “have the right to discuss it because “we are paying a very high price”. 

Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala is another Central American president leading the debate on a need for a global shift in drug policy and challenging the U.S to move in the same direction.

"I believe that as he is entering his second term, [Obama] is going to be more open to this debate. In the end, this is the direction we all have to move in. There is going to be a change away from the paradigm of prohibitionism and the war against drugs, to a process that will take us towards regulation. I would expect a more flexible and open position from President Obama in his second term." 

Molina’s engagement with the issue is a welcome development, though his role as an advocate of reform may be overshadowed by the serious (though unconfirmed) allegations of human rights abuses that he faces.

Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, now serving his second term, hasn't endorsed wider drug policy reform, but has instead focused on the legalisation of the practice of traditional coca leaf chewing in Bolivia. In his campaign he dared to withdraw the country from the 1961 UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and despite objections from several countries later managed to re-accede to the convention with a special dispensation recognising the practice as legal in Bolivia, effectively renegotiating the UN conventions to allow for more progressive reforms. 

Morales has also been highly critical of the broader 'war on drugs' paradigm - which he views as failed and counterproductive. See, for example, this speech at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs earlier this year.


Ruth Dreifuss. Former president of Switzerland, member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (which supported an experiment with legal market regulation of cannabis and other drugs), and pioneer of innovative harm reduction strategies. She introduced heroin-assisted treatment whilst she was Minister of Home Affairs for Switzerland and she frequently speaks out for decriminalisation and a public health approach to drug policy.

Dreifuss was also a special guest at an event held by the global Count the Costs initiative, of which Transform is a leading supporter. 

César Gaviria. The former president of Colombia, and a former Secretary General of Organization of American States, recently reiterated his support for drug policy reform, writing a joint letter with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ricardo Lagos and Ernesto Zedilla on the new, groundbreaking report by the OAS that recommends exploring alternatives to the war on drugs:

The OAS and countries across Latin America are positively contributing to the breaking of the taboo that blocked for so long the debate on more humane and efficient drug policy. It is time that governments around the world are allowed to responsibly experiment with regulation models that are tailored to their realities and local needs."

Gaviria, a longstanding proponent of fundamental change in global drug policy also wrote the foreword to the Spanish edition of Transform’s 'Blueprint for Regulation': 

The world needs, and deserves, a control regime that is not corrupt, that has genuine integrity – that is sound, complete and whole – that is democratic, and delivers security, development and health within a human rights framework. I am realistic. I believe it could take another ten years to turn this ‘Blueprint’ into reality. It is a tragedy that in the next decade many thousands more will die using dirty drugs or trying to stop, or fighting over the spoils of, the illegal trade. At the same time we will collectively waste another trillion dollars on the global war on drugs."

George Papandreou who served as Greece’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and later became Prime Minister, is another member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy who was a serving head of state at the time of publication and as such was therefore possibly the first head of state to publicly back legalisation/regulation. He has long advocated the need for a rethink of the current global drug policy framework.

Speaking at a High-level Conference on Drugs entitled "Towards an effective drug policy: Scientific documentation, everyday action and political choices", which was organized during the Greek presidency of the EU in 2003, Papandreou said:

"I do not hide that I personally have from time to time supported the need to see the addict as someone in need of treatment rather than a criminal, the need to make full use of the conclusions of a number of bold pilot projects, regarding the supervised administration of substitute narcotics in an organised way, including by the State itself."

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil, and Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, has been one of the most prominent former leaders calling for radical changes in drug policy:

There is still a long way to go. The trend towards decriminalisation for possession helps to empower a public health paradigm. It breaks the silence about the drug problem. It enables people to think in terms of approaching drug abuse in a way that is not first and foremost a matter for the criminal justice system. Reducing the harm caused by drugs goes hand in hand with reducing consumption."

In a joint letter written with Cesar Gaviria and Ernesto Zedillo he reasserts their support for the legal regulation of the drug market:

The full enforcement power of the state and the social and cultural pressure of society should be aimed at a relentless fight against organized crime -- rather than persecuting people in need of treatment.

Our second core recommendation -- which is more complex but just as important for ensuring peace and public safety -- is to encourage experimentation with different models of legal regulation of drugs, such as marijuana, in similar ways to what is already done with tobacco and alcohol.

Research has consistently demonstrated that marijuana is a less harmful drug than tobacco or alcohol. Regulation is not the same as legalization. This is a critical point. Regulation is a necessary step to create the conditions for a society to establish all kinds of restrictions and limitations on the production, trade, advertising and consumption of a given substance to deglamorize, discourage and control its use."

Jorge Sampaio. The former Portuguese president was at the beginning of his second term when his country became one of the pioneering EU countries introducing a decriminalisation policy in July 2001.

The pioneering law was introduced in response to Portugal’s growing drug abuse problem, and meant drug possession/use was no longer treated as a criminal justice issue. Instead, it would now be dealt with as a purely administrative violation. This legal refrom, alongside a more fundamental realignment of policy from punitive enforcement towards public health interventions. , resulted in a decline in problematic drug use, drug-related mortality rates and drug-related disease transmission. Twelve years after the law was enacted there is widespread political consensus in Portugal in favour of decriminalisation.

Ernesto Zedillo, the former Mexican president, and another member of the Global Commission, has also been a co-author of previously mentioned letters calling for alternatives to prohibition to be explored. Zedillo is also the Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. In one of the Center’s publications entitled ‘Rethinking the War on Drugs through the US - Mexico Prism‘ he writes that:

"Of course, we must believe that the architects and subsequent followers of the ‘war on drugs‘ strategy though that they were acting on behalf of the public interest, but that is hardly a reason not to examine the basis for and the results of their policies. In this process, we should not ignore the possibility that their idea of public interests might have been distorted by a sense of short-term political urgency."

Aleksander Kwasniewski, former president of Poland who joined the Global Commission last year seems to be a good illustration of the short-termism that Zedillo wrote about. In 2000, as president, Kwasniewski signed the bill introducing a prison sentence of up to 3 years for the possession of any amount of illicit drugs, no matter how small. Not surprisingly, the result was a drastic increase in numbers of arrests, more than half of them under the age of 24

Such an approach hardly merits a place on the list of top reformers, however what is interesting is that he publicly admitted that introducing those policies was a serious mistake. In an op-ed published in the New York times in May last year he declared:

"It is my hope that political and community leaders in other countries, especially in Eastern Europe, will learn from Poland’s experience in criminalizing drug possession, a move that clearly fell short of its goals. Such a policy failure should not be repeated anywhere else in the world."

"East European leaders should press for a halt to incarcerating people for possessing small amounts of drugs for personal use and should start treating drug addiction as a public health issue." 

No comments: