NEW YORK — At one end was the famed silver mane of British entrepreneur Richard Branson, across the table were dignitaries and public health experts from Western Europe, but it was Latin American leadership that sat front and center for the Global Commission on Drug Policy.
Commissioners César Gaviria and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who chairs the Commission, introduced a report last Thursday in New York demanding an end to the world-wide “War on Drugs” and a reformed policy approach. Their position at the head of the panel reflects the reality that that war’s epicenter remains in Latin America. It is in countries like those of the former presidents, Gaviria’s own Colombia or Cardoso’s Brazil, that the failures of that war have been mostly deeply felt.
Though a number of the reforms recommended by the Commission have been debated for several years, the report it delivered to the UN on Friday comes with an unprecedentedly broad endorsement. The Commissioners hail from 15 countries, former and current government positions, the UN, NGOs, and the health, security, business and even literary realms. Four are former presidents; three of Latin American countries —Cardoso of Brazil, Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico.
Cardoso and Gaviria were only two of several commissioners who spoke independently at the press conference introducing the report. The former presidents nearly took turns fielding questions during a question and answer session dominated by Latin American media, who frequently interrupted the event requesting statements in Spanish for their audience.
Latin American leaders have emerged at the forefront of new research and thinking on how to combat the global drug trade, as part of a growing movement away criminalization to public health. Several countries have already begun to implement alternatives to the more punitive strategies of the “War on Drugs,” from decriminalization to legalization and regulation.
This has brought them — and the Commission — into conflict with the primary architects of what Gaviria calls the “prohibitionist” policies of War on Drugs: the United Nations, and in particular, the United States.
The war has been waged for half a century; in 1961, the United Nations initiated the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan launched the U.S. government’s “War on Drugs” that continues to this day. Together, their end was a world without drugs, and the means to achieve it was a harsh crackdown on those involved in the production, distribution and consumption of drugs like heroin, cocaine, and cannabis.