At Davos, a Drug Policy Tipping Point?

Against a backdrop of furtive networking and tinkling champagne glasses at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, something truly remarkable happened. In a packed convention hall, four global leaders gathered on stage to debate the future of drug policy. For more than an hour they discussed the pros and cons of decriminalization and regulation, bringing a once politically toxic issue into the veritable heart of the economic establishment. The mood was relaxed, but the commentary was intensely focused. At least five take-away messages are worth singling out.

First, focus on the destructive and devastating effects of misguided (drug) policy on people. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke passionately about the ruinous impacts of the global war on drugs. He called for an updated approach based on promoting public health and education. The criminalization of small-time users, particularly poor African Americans and Latinos, is intolerable. Annan described how lives are destroyed, families are impoverished, prisons are packed to bursting point, and development is denied by wrong-headed efforts to crack down on drugs.

Second, make science central to debate and action on drugs. The lone dissenter on the Davos panel was the governor of Texas, Rick Perry. While signaling his staunch opposition to the legalization of drugs, he seemed open to sensible decriminalization. The governor also stressed the central place of evidence and data-driven approaches to dealing with narcotic trafficking and consumption. Not surprisingly, he offered-up Texas’ controversial drug courts as an exemplary model of good practice. His emphasis on evidence-based approaches was a surprising but welcome contribution.

Third, follow the money and crack down heavily on the illegal profits generated by drug cartels. One of the most articulate panelists was Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, which only recently waded into the drug policy debate. A seasoned prosecutor in his own right, he admonished banks for not being more forthcoming in disclosing laundered assets. Along with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Roth also set out a reasoned case for regulating drugs, much like alcohol and tobacco, in order to eviscerate the hefty margins of drug traffickers.

Fourth, beware the balloon effect when seeking to curb the supply of illegal drugs. President Santos was far and away the most experienced panelist, not least given his time serving on the front lines of the drug war. He is also a champion of more progressive thinking on drug policy, repeatedly highlighting the value of global and collaborative approaches. At Davos, he drew attention to the ways in which seemingly “successful” efforts to reduce the supply and trafficking of cocaine from Colombia have yielded disastrous outcomes in Central America and Mexico.

Fifth, start discriminating between different drugs when debating decriminalization and regulation. The panelists made clear that the (false) prohibition-legalization dichotomy invoked by anti-drug warriors is crumbling under the weight of public scrutiny. People everywhere are starting to recognize the nuances of the drug policy debate and the many options between these two extremes. But while almost everyone seems prepared to consider regulating marijuana, there are still lingering doubts when it comes to managing harder drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, or heroin.

There is a rare consensus emerging about the future direction of drug policy reform. Virtually everyone agrees that one size cannot and should not fit all. And while sensitive to the risks associated with drugs, the Davos panelists also welcomed experimentation, including recent initiatives in the US states of Colorado and Washington and in Uruguay. The Global Commission on Drug Policy raised all of these points in their seminal 2011 report. Back then, the commissioners’ views were considered heretical by the international elite. Yet last week in Davos, their views were looking decidedly mainstream.

Robert Muggah is research director of the Igarapé Institute and directs research at the SecDev Foundation. Ilona Szabo de Carvalho is executive director of the Igarapé Institute and executive co-ordinator of the Global Commission on Drug Policy Secretariat.This article is based on an op-ed prepared for the Toronto Star.

About the photo: “The Drugs Dilemma” panel at the 2014 World Economic Forum included (from left) Enrique Acevedo of Univision USA; former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; US Governor Rick Perry; President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia; and Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch. (World Economic Forum)