Replacing the War on Drugs: it is time for sensible drug policies
Peace and war take many forms. When US President Nixon declared a War on Drugs in 1971 it sounded like a swift concerted effort after which there would be peace, something better than what was before. But nearly five decades later, we see that the war on drugs has become both a war on the people who take them and an arms race with organized crime — defending its most lucrative commodity — which has cost hundreds of thousand their lives. The War on Drugs was not won and it is beyond time to replace it with sensible and realistic drug policies that have been proven to work by some countries and need to be applied globally.
The late Kofi Annan was a fierce advocate for a more humane approach to drug control globally and he convinced me and many others. Always a great communicator, he managed to put it quite simply for all to comprehend when he repeatedly said:
“I believe that drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrong government policies have destroyed many more.”
To achieve change in his home region, he convened the West Africa Commission on Drugs which he then asked me to chair. We have since called on political leaders in West Africa to act together to change drug laws that have not worked. The West African Commission went further and developed a tool for policymakers to achieve the necessary changes.
Our countries face three inter-related dangers from illegal drug trafficking. First, there is the threat from drug-funded corruption. But this is a problem in our countries beyond the issue of drugs and we need to confront this in all aspects of our institutions and public life. Second, there is the risk that drug traffickers may link up with other criminal elements or, worse, extremist groups. We need to counter organised crime in all its different forms, be it the trafficking of drugs, of humans, of arms or money laundering. But again this is a bigger issue than drug policy and we need to come together as a region to tackle it. Third, there is the harmful impact on the health and social cohesion of local communities caused by growing drug consumption. This third point is within the realm of our national drug laws.
But we are currently increasing the harms rather than helping to reduce them. Harsh drug laws threaten long prison sentences for people in possession of drugs for their personal consumption. They are applied disproportionately to the poor, uneducated and the vulnerable. Many say these harsh laws are needed as a deterrent. However, it has been shown that increasing a sentence for drug use does not lead to reduction in consumption. Our laws are also overly strict on the medical use of opioids. This has led to a situation where pain and suffering goes untreated. Millions of terminal cancer patients in our countries are suffering indescribable pain because doctors are afraid they will be seen as drug dealers if they prescribe them medicine that would bring relief.
But we are currently increasing the harms rather than helping to reduce them.
This has to stop. We need modern drug policies, which balance the need for access to essential medicines with reducing the harms of illegal drugs. We have developed a Model Drug Law as a practical tool to change our national drug laws. It gives concrete templates that countries can adapt. It provides explanations as to why these legal provisions are proposed and how they comply with international law.
We look forward to presenting and discussing the Model Drug Law for West Africa at the Paris Peace Forum and to work with you towards its adoption as a step towards more peaceful and prosperous societies.
Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.
Olusegun Obasanjo; member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and chairs the West Africa Commission on Drugs.
He served as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria from 1999 until 2007. Upon leaving office, he oversaw the first civilian handover of power in Nigeria from one democratically-elected leader to another. President Obasanjo’s administration tackled corruption as a major priority, establishing dedicated bodies and strengthening existing ones.
On a regional level, President Obasanjo has played a pivotal role in the regeneration and repositioning of the African Union with the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). He has consistently supported the deepening and widening of regional cooperation through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Co-prosperity Alliance Zone.
He has at different times served as Chairman of the Group of 77, Chairman of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Chairman of the African Heads of State and Government Implementation Committee on NEPAD. He was also involved in international mediation efforts in Namibia, Angola, South Africa, Mozambique and Burundi. In 2008, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed President Obasanjo as his Special Envoy on the Great Lakes.