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As Pot Decriminalization Advances in U.S., Former World Leaders Call for End to Failed War on Drugs

StorySeptember 10, 2014
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We look at the growing movement for drug decriminalization that is moving ahead in the United States and being amplified by former heads of state from around the around. On Monday, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said he would sign a bill that would make Philadelphia the largest city in the country to decriminalize marijuana possession. Just two weeks ago, the City Council in Santa Fe voted to decriminalize marijuana. Earlier this year, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray signed a bill to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in the U.S. capital. Ballot initiatives on legalization of marijuana will go before voters in Oregon, Florida and Alaska in November. This comes two years after voter initiatives in Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational marijuana. Meanwhile, a group of former presidents and United Nations leaders gathered in New York Tuesday to call for an end to the criminalization and incarceration of drug users. Known as the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the panel includes the former presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Poland, Portugal and Switzerland. The commission first made headlines in 2011 when it declared the war on drugs to be a failure. We are joined by two guests: Michel Kazatchkine, a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and the United Nations’ special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; and Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Watch Part 2 of this interview.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to look at the growing movement toward drug [decriminalization]. On Monday, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said he would sign a bill that would make Philadelphia the largest city in the country to decriminalize marijuana possession. Just two weeks ago, the City Council in Santa Fe voted to decriminalize marijuana, as well. Earlier this year, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray signed a bill to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in the U.S. capital. Ballot initiatives on legalization of marijuana will go before voters in Oregon, Florida and Alaska in November. This comes two years after voter initiatives in Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational marijuana.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, a group of former presidents and United Nations leaders gathered in New York Tuesday to call for an end to the criminalization and incarceration of drug users. Known as the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the panel includes the former presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Poland, Portugal and Switzerland. Other members include former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as well as George Shultz, the former secretary of state under President Reagan. The commission first made headlines in 2011 when it declared the war on drugs to be a failure. Ernesto Zedillo is the former president of Mexico.

ERNESTO ZEDILLO: Governments, as a general rule, should de-emphasize the pursuit of nonviolent and minor offenders, while directing enforcement resources strategically towards the most disruptive and violent elements of the trafficking.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: César Gaviria, the former president of Colombia, also spoke on Tuesday in New York.

CÉSAR GAVIRIA: What we are trying to do now is exactly to recognize that we will not live in a world free of drugs and that we should move to a control of the drug markets by regulation instead of these idealistic and proper idea that we should—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Louise Arbour, the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, also condemned the war on drugs.

LOUISE ARBOUR: It is a model, the model that we’ve embraced for the past 50 years, that is now demonstrably ineffective, inefficient, costly—and by “cost,” I don’t mean only financial cost, catastrophic human cost—that delivers nothing on a promise that was a ridiculous one to make in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about this drug summit and the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s new report, we’re joined by two guests here in New York. Dr. Michel Kazatchkine is the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and former executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Ethan Nadelmann is with us, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ethan, let’s start right here in the United States, this major development, largest U.S. city yet to decriminalize pot. It looks like October 20th may be the big day in Philadelphia. Talk about the significance of this.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, I mean, on the one hand, one has to say that there’s decriminalization, and there’s decriminalization. There’s decriminalization which results in marijuana being treated simply as a $25 ticket or a traffic fine, and then there’s what happened in New York and other states back in the '70s. When we decriminalized marijuana, arrests initially dropped, and then somehow the police—the NYPD, in this case, or other police—found ways to keep arresting mostly young men of color for having some marijuana in their pocket. I think this latest wave of decriminalizations are much further-reaching. People understand what went wrong before. And I'll tell you, in New Mexico, it’s a very important move. Some of these others are very important, as well. In D.C., the decriminalization law that passed just a few months ago, that was probably the furthest-reaching of ever. Now the cops can’t even say, “Oh I smelled marijuana on him, and that’s why I started searching him and arresting him.” So, we’re really moving in that direction. And D.C., in fact, will have a ballot initiative this November that will be a quasi-legalization initiative and hopefully set up for the City Council to fully tax and regulate marijuana next year.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Michel Kazatchkine, let’s turn to this report. You’re a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Could you talk about the key recommendations of the report and how they differ from policies for drug control in the past?

DR. MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: Well, they’re radically different. The policies in the past have been based on a prohibition paradigm. As César Gaviria was saying in the short piece you were showing, there was a dream or an unrealistic goal of drug policies of a drug-free world, and that could be achieved by just prohibiting drugs, prohibiting production, sale, distribution, consumption. That paradigm has failed. That’s what we have been saying since our first report in 2011. So, we’re talking about a new paradigm, and that is that we advocate for policies that are not based on repression and prohibition, but policies that are based on health, promotion of human rights and more humane policies. And that implies, first, to prioritize health. Drugs is about health, we say, not about policing. And that’s not just a rhetoric sentence. This is about shifting resources that are currently going into totally ineffective repression into promotion of health and social interventions of proven efficacity. Then, it’s about decriminalizing. It’s about shifting the repressive efforts from targeting small dealers, vendors, farmers, onto the big fishes that are currently escaping the system. And finally—and this is a very sensitive and a new, somehow, advocacy point of our commission—we’re saying, ultimately, one day, we will have to renegotiate the international drug control regime—that is, the international treaties that were agreed like 60 years ago—because we advocate for legal regulation of drugs, and in order for that to come one day, we’ll have to renegotiate those treaties.

AMY GOODMAN: Ethan Nadelmann, what do you think are the most difficult arguments you face in the United States? I mean, issues around—or for someone to listen might be saying, or someone watching might say, “What about the massive issue of addiction, overall, when you’re talking about, well, drugs even beyond marijuana?”

ETHAN NADELMANN: Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you, Amy, I mean, the typical argument here is: “But what about the kids?” Right? You hear about this with marijuana. And I think, with respect to marijuana legalization, I think there will be greater levels of marijuana use in our society, but I don’t think it’s going to be the kids, because they’ve had the best access to marijuana for decades now and will continue to do so, and the laws aren’t going to legalize it for them anyway, right? I think it will be probably with older people. And to the extent we’re talking about marijuana, it’s not at all clear that that’s going to be a net harm if people are having a puff of marijuana in the evening instead of a drink or a sleeping pill or whatever it might be.

I think the second argument—I mean, our most vigorous opposition now is coming from the prison-industrial complex, the police and others. And they’re just trying to hold on to what they had. They’re making arguments about health, which is bizarre coming from the police, because they’ve never apparently cared about the health issues before. And the whole move towards marijuana legalization has created a kind of crisis of identity for them, almost in the existential identity.

So I think the last argument that remains that we really struggle with is, look what’s happened with pharmaceutical opiates in our society. You know, 15 years ago, there was a big problem with people not getting sufficient painkillers for things like cancer pain and terminal illness and all these things. So we expanded the availability. But then physicians and others started prescribing them much too broadly for chronic pain, where they didn’t work that well. And so now, last year, more people died of an opiate overdose, either heroin or pharmaceuticals, than in auto accident—number one cause of accidental death. So the greatest challenge is, we know prohibitionist policies have failed; can we intelligently regulate the drugs once they’re legal? That’s the real challenge now.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see a federal law coming down the road?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, the feds, on an issue like this, are almost always the last. But I will give President Obama some credit here, because when Washington and Colorado voted to legalize and legally regulate marijuana, the White House and the Justice Department had to figure out what to do. And they hemmed and hawed for months, but finally, last summer, they said, “We’re going to allow Washington and Colorado to proceed.” Congress wasn’t yet willing to change the law. But that was monumental, and not just in the U.S., because once Washington said that Colorado and Washington have room to proceed, then they had to say the same thing to people externally. So when Uruguay legalized marijuana in December, the U.S. ambassador said, “The U.S. regards that as a domestic issue for Uruguay.” That’s opened up—I mean, it’s remarkable, actually, the international impact of Washington and Colorado legalizing marijuana.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Dr. Kazatchkine, what are the drugs that you’re calling for the decriminalization of, in trade and in other laws?

DR. MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: Well, we’re talking—our discourse is generic. We talk about—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So it’s not just marijuana; it’s all.

DR. MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: —currently illicit drugs. No, absolutely. For example, synthetic psychoactive substances, ATS, as they are being called, amphetamine-like stimulants. You may know that in New Zealand in the last year, the government and the Parliament passed bills by which some of the ATSes can be submitted to national authorities just as you submit a dossier for a pharmaceutical drug, a medicine, and—

AMY GOODMAN: Heroin, as well?

DR. MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: Not—heroin is different. I’ll come back to heroin in a second. You submit your dossier. You show the adverse events. You document what the substance is. And if that is, quote, “approved,” then it is being sold under regulatory conditions, like not to people below the age of 18, sold in adult shops, and so on. That’s what we call regulated market. And people—actually, from the 2,000 and so substances that were circulating in New Zealand, people are—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds. We have 20 seconds to go.

DR. MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: Yeah, people are now using around 200, which means that people want to use stuff that they know what it contains. Heroin is different. Heroin, to me, can be a medicine for some of the people who are addicted to heroin and cannot use anything else and are strictly dependent on a high-quality product that we, as doctors, should be able to provide to people in need.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re meeting with Ban Ki-moon today. We’ll talk about that in a post-show and put it online at democracynow.org. (See Part 2 here.) Dr. Michel Kazatchkine, thanks so much for being with us, member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe. And thanks so much to Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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