You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Part 2: “The Prohibition Paradigm Has Failed,” Leaders Urge Prevention, Treatment for Drug Addicts

Web ExclusiveSeptember 10, 2014
Media Options

In part two of our interview with Dr. Michel Kazatchkine, a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, he describes his meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said world leaders should consider all options and move away from a failed prohibition paradigm and militarized drug war. They also discussed a 2016 U.N. meeting on drug policy that could be a “turning point in how the world looks at the drug problem.” We also speak with Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, about how the Obama administration’s decision not to oppose marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington has also “forced the State Department to change its international posture” and adapt a more flexible position.

Click here to watch Part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: 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 and George Shultz, former secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. The commission first made headlines in 2011 when it declared the war on drugs to be a failure.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about all of this, we’re joined now in part two of our conversation by Dr. Michel Kazatchkine. He is the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, former executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. And Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Michel Kazatchkine, you met with Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, on Tuesday. What did you tell him? What do you think needs to happen?

DR. MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: Well, that particular meeting was focusing on the forthcoming special session of the United Nations General Assembly that is now scheduled for 2016. And this—and we have lots of expectation around that session. We would like it to be a turning point in how the world looks at the drug problem. The last of these sessions took place in 1998, so that’s 18 years ago. We don’t want to miss that opportunity, because at the end of the session 18 years ago what was said is, “We want a world free of drugs, and we will achieve that prohibition.” Many things have changed. Things are evolving rapidly. We would like the next session to really acknowledge the fact that the current prohibitionist paradigm has failed. We want the next session to somehow open the way for reforms. We want it to allow more flexibilities, as we call it, in the system, so that people can experiment new pathways of drug policies—for example, what’s happening now in Uruguay, Colorado or Washington state for marijuana.

And that’s what we were discussing with the secretary-general. He is certainly a very open-minded person. He himself called for a very, quote, “open” debate in the next two years, where people should not, quote, “shy away from looking at all options,” end of quote. We also ask him to make sure that all of the United Nations will come united as one U.N. here, because currently the lead in the U.N. is with the what’s called UNODC, which is the U.N. agency office for drug and crime and trafficking. But drugs is not only about crime and trafficking. Drugs is about health. Drug is about human rights. Drugs is about HIV/AIDS, TB, hepatitis. Drug is about development. Drug is about social coherence and democracy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Kazatchkine, what are some of the countries that you expect to be the most resistant to decriminalizing the trade in drugs?

DR. MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: Well, first we will face, you know, a lot of resistance, so let’s be very clear. The world is not ready to move as a united group of nations here. But things may evolve in the next few years. The most resistant bloc currently is certainly the Russian Federation and a group of sort of allies around Russia, China, Iran—


DR. MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: —and a number of African countries, a number of countries from Middle East, Egypt—that is often sort of leading on resistance. Why? Because these people are still very much in the original prohibitionist paradigm: Drugs are bad; drugs should be illegal; drugs should be forbidden; and by cutting supply and by criminalizing users, and therefore that would be a way to stop the demand; we’ll have a drug-free world. But they sort of do not realize that this is just unrealistic and that we should move—that’s what we’re saying—towards legal regulation—for example, just as it happens with tobacco.

AMY GOODMAN: Ethan Nadelmann, in the first part of our conversation, you talked about the significance of the country of Uruguay legalizing marijuana. Explain exactly what that means, but also why—how it came to pass and what this means for the world and the United States.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Yeah, well, Amy, I should say, I think the most significant was really Colorado and Washington, because those legalizing and then the White House and the attorney general agreeing to allow them to proceed—

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you mean by allow them to proceed?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, because what Colorado and Washington did was technically in violation of the federal marijuana prohibition law. So, for Washington—for the White House and the Justice Department to say, as with medical marijuana, we’re going to allow the states to legally regulate this, and that there’s reason to believe that legally regulating marijuana may better advance the public health and public safety objectives of federal drug control than persisting with the failed prohibitionist policies, that was a very significant move, right?

AMY GOODMAN: And in these states, for those who don’t live in Colorado or Washington state, what actually can you do?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, what’s happened now, Colorado, earlier in January, and Washington just, I think, a month or two ago, you can now go to stores, and if you show your proof of age, ID, you can buy marijuana. You don’t have to be a state resident. You can buy up to a certain amount You’re not legally supposed to take it out of the state. You also, in the state of Colorado, can grow a few plants legally and not be caught. You still can’t smoke it, you know, in the workplace. You still can’t smoke it in public, right? So it is fairly strict. It’s like combining the toughest alcohol laws with the toughest cigarette laws. But it is now legal to buy. People are paying taxes. There are legal outlets. So it really is, I mean, taking what was a vast underground, illegal industry and putting it above ground. Now, once the White House said, “Colorado and Washington, you can do that,” that forced the State Department to change its international posture, to say that they now agree that the international conventions should be interpreted with flexibility—brand new position by the U.S., right? I mean, ultimately, we need to revise these conventions, but for now, very important.

Then, when Uruguay emerged—and that was really the leadership of President Mujica. You know, he asked his advisers, “What’s the best thing to do with marijuana?” And his advisers said, “Well, we should legally regulate it. You know, that’s not politically possible.” And Mujica said to them, “You know, I’m president for four years. Let’s give it a shot.” And he was actually able to move it forward, so Uruguay is now setting up a system to legalize marijuana, where people can grow some plants and register, or they can join what’s called a cannabis club, like they have in Spain now, which is a sort of not free market effort, but a kind of restricted one, or they can buy it in pharmacies. And so, Uruguay is very slowly, but very cautiously, proceeding with this implementation plan.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, in Uruguay right now, you can just walk around smoking marijuana?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, once again, it’s not allowed—these places don’t allow you to do it openly. Right? It’s still illegal—in Washington, in Colorado, in Uruguay, you cannot walk around the streets smoking a joint the way you could a cigarette, right? It’s more like—well, we have open-container things: You can’t drink in public, right? Now, in some places, the police are very unlikely to arrest you anymore for smoking in public, but there’s still a sense that this is about private consumption.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Kazatchkine, you’ve talked about the fact that your report emphasizes policies other than punitive policies for the use of drugs. What kinds—you’re a doctor yourself. What kinds of investments do you think the international community needs to make with respect to drugs that would be more beneficial?

DR. MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: Investments in prevention, because we’re not a commission, you know, calling for legalization as it may be understood by people, which means free access to all of the drugs everywhere, from one day to another. We’re calling for what Ethan was describing to happen in Colorado, which is strict regulation in order for the governments to take control of the quality and of the way the drugs are being distributed and consumed by people—again, just like we do for tobacco and alcohol. The investments need to go in prevention, because we don’t want people to use drugs in the first place.

Second, we don’t want the people who use drugs for recreational purposes to move to what’s called problematic use or addiction. And then we want to invest in treatment, so that people who are using and who are addicted actually are treated, supported, cared for, and not jailed for long periods of time. So we want investment in prevention, treatment, care and support. And then we want, of course, prevention of HIV/AIDS, prevention—we want people to inject safely. We want people who are addicted on heroin to have large access to substitutive therapy with methadone, which is still problematic in this country. We want people to have large access to needle exchange programs. In summary, we really want investments into the health interventions and social interventions, of which there is proven efficacy, rather than wasting that money on ineffective prohibition law enforcement.

AMY GOODMAN: Sonia Nazario recently wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times, which was headlined “The Children of the Drug Wars.” And she wrote, “To permanently stem this flow of children, we must address the complex root causes of violence in Honduras, as well as the demand for illegal drugs in the United States that is fueling that violence.” You know, everyone has seen the headlines of the children coming over the border. What does that have to do with the drug war, and how would that be changed by what you’re proposing, Ethan Nadelmann?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Sure. I mean, it’s a good question. I mean, if you look at this incredibly—I mean, among the highest homicide rates in the world in some parts of Central America, like Honduras, and you ask, “What’s causing all this violence and instability?” there’s many causes of it. But what’s very clear is that the war on drugs itself, what that’s done, because you have a dynamic drug trafficking going through Central America from South America to the U.S., because you have gangsters who are empowered by illegal drug money and who are engaging in violence and then using their money to acquire political power, because just the general instability that’s created, all of that’s created this situation of instability in Central America. And obviously, part of the reason these kids are fleeing is because of the fear for their lives and insecurity.

Conversely, in the United States, the best way to reduce the demand for illegal drugs, especially the heroin and cocaine, is, A, to provide drug treatment—effective drug treatment, not treatment through the criminal justice system, but outside the criminal justice system—and then, secondly, where my answer to your question dovetails with what Michel was talking about, the Global Commission, ultimately, for those addicts who are unable or unwilling to stop using drugs, what we need to do is to devise means to allow them to obtain their drugs legally. That’s what a half-dozen European countries and Canada are now doing with heroin maintenance programs, where heroin addicts can come to a clinic and get heroin. But we need to find ways to scale those programs up in such a way that the broader public health is not endangered, but these people are withdrawn from the illegal market.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Kazatchkine, could you also comment, in light of what Ethan has said, on the fact that the Global Commission has five former Latin American presidents as its members?

DR. MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: Yeah, of course. There are two reasons for that. One is that Latin America has suffered from the war on drugs. And that’s where the violence resulting from the conflicts between the cartels, the violence resulting from the militarization of the war on drugs, has been the most apparent in the world. We in Europe have seen mostly the disaster of prohibition through HIV/AIDS and hepatitis as epidemics. But the second reason is historic somehow, is that at one point, three former presidents from Latin America—and that’s President Cardoso, President Gaviria and President Zedillo, from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico—came together and founded what was called at that time the Latin American Commission on Drugs, which was the sort of father or ancestor to our Global Commission. And after they came with their first proposals for changing paradigms and for acknowledging the failure of the war on drugs on their continent, that commission moved to a global commission, which is now.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo speaking Tuesday. He urged governments to regulate, not criminalize drugs.

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.

AMY GOODMAN: Ethan Nadelmann, it was not only the Latin American presidents, but George Shultz, the former secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. Can you talk about the significance?

ETHAN NADELMANN: I mean, the former secretary of almost everything, right? Treasury and labor. And then you had Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and Richard Branson, the businessman. And there are others who are sympathetic. What’s remarkable—I’ve watched the evolution of this Global Commission and the Latin American Commission. And what’s remarkable is you have these remarkably distinguished leaders, many of them coming not from the left, but from the center or the center-right, but across the spectrum, who start off saying, “You know, we need to change. The drug war has failed. We need to emphasize more prevention, treatment.” Everybody can agree with that, but what I’ve seen is their evolution to saying prohibition is fundamentally a failure, that we need to find ways to basically take this market from the underground and bring it above ground, right, and try to regulate it. Or one other way to think about it is as a spectrum, from the most draconian drug policies at one end—Saudi Arabia, Singapore, you know, cut off their hands, whip them, drug-test them without cause, put them in prison camps—to the most free market, you know, libertarian ones at the other end. And the whole key is moving down this spectrum, emphasizing public health, de-emphasizing security forces and criminalization and criminal justice, and up to the point where reducing the controls any further would actually endanger public health.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you said that the police just keep pushing this, and the prison-industrial complex. Why? I mean, it may be self-evident, but—

ETHAN NADELMANN: Look, part of it is about money and jobs—I mean, the private prison corporations, on the one hand, and the prison guards’ unions, on the other. I mean, just I thank God they hate one another. But those guys have both been pushing for higher levels of incarceration for a long time, because it serves their interests. For the police, it’s almost an identity issue. You know, they become—the police are getting better at the issue of addressing overdose from a health framework as opposed to a criminal framework. But the marijuana one, that’s what legitimizes their putting their hands on young men, and especially young men of color, all around the country. And to now say to police, “No, you can’t just stick your hands in people’s pocket and give them an arrest record and do all this sort of stuff,” it’s creating—they don’t know what to do. In many parts of America, there’s not much heroin or cocaine around, or even methamphetamine. It’s marijuana. Take marijuana out of the drug war by making it legal, and it’s possible the broader drug war begins to crumble, and that allows the emergence of a public health framework rather than a public safety, criminal justice, punitive framework.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, because I know, Dr. Kazatchkine, you have to get to the United Nations. Dr. Michel Kazatchkine, member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe, previously executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Related Story

StoryJun 18, 2024Ahead of Juneteenth, Maryland Pardons 175K Pot Convictions, Seeking to Remedy Harms of War on Drugs
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 Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation