Drug trafficking and the black market are, to a large extent, a direct consequence of the international drug control system and the national laws that are derived therefrom.

2016 has been a pivotal year for drug policy on a global level. The review of a half-century of prohibition has led countries as diverse as Jamaica, Canada and Mexico to adopt reforms that would have been considered unimaginable only a short while ago. The US states of Colorado, Oregon and Washington, as well as Washington, D.C., have regulated cannabis, and this issue is also on the ballot for November in several other US states, in particular California. Public opinion is gradually shifting to support new approaches.

In April, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) clearly showed that the decades-long consensus based on drug prohibition and punitive approaches is broken. Rather than propose innovative policy solutions, however, the final declaration of UNGASS on drugs continues to uphold prohibitionist strategies.

Effective approaches to drug policy based on scientific evidence and shared national experiences must be at the center of the current focus. The preparations for UNGASS mobilized governments, scientists, non-governmental organizations, and international agencies in charge of development, health and human rights, highlighting their commitment to propose innovative and viable solutions.

Today there is an urgent need to sustain this commitment and transform the unprecedented interest in drug policy for true reform into concrete actions driven by a wide range of stakeholders.

Drug trafficking and the black market are, to a large extent, a direct consequence of the international drug control system and the national laws that are derived therefrom.

Prohibition and the goal of drug-free societies have caused what the United Nations agency in charge of this international drug control system refers to as “unintended consequences”. These include huge profits from an illegal market worth US$320 billion per year, which fuels violence, corruption and instability. The prohibitionist, law enforcement-centered approach has caused irreparable harm to numerous communities around the world and we must act now.

According to a study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 83 per cent of total global drug-related offenses are for simple drug possession, even though criminalization blocks prevention measures, risk reduction, access to health care, and feeds HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C epidemics. Thirty-three countries still apply the death penalty for drug-related offences. Thirteen of them even have a mandatory death penalty sentence for drug-related arrests. This situation is unbearable: mandatory sentences deprive judges of their discretion and undermine the principle of proportionality, two elements that are the basis for democratic, independent judicial systems.

Some countries have taken “the road less traveled”, implementing public policies that are person-centered, recognize the human rights of people who use drugs, seek to increase the security of all citizens, and to reduce the harms of both drug use and drug policies.

Many European countries have implemented comprehensive harm reduction programs that include needle exchanges and substitution therapy. Portugal and the Czech Republic have replaced punitive sanctions with social measures. Jamaica recently passed a law that decriminalizes all uses of cannabis while Uruguay paved the way in drug policy reform in 2013 when it adopted comprehensive legislation regulating the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis for medical and personal use.

Monitoring and evaluating the Uruguay model will take several years; however, there is already evidence to show that countries imposing punitive penalties are no more likely to deter drug use than countries imposing less punitive sanctions. On the contrary.

A 2010 report from the Rand Corporation on the Netherlands, which has had a semi-regulated cannabis market for the past 40 years, showed that the prevalence of cannabis use among Dutch citizens is lower than in neighboring countries such as France, Spain or Germany. Furthermore, the so-called ‘coffee shops’ model has not increased the use of other drugs such as amphetamines or cocaine, debunking any theory that cannabis is a “gateway” leading to hard drug addiction.

Evidence-based policies, including the regulation of drug markets, are the way forward. As long as the billion-dollar black market exists, as long as users and small-scale players on the market are criminalized and incarcerated, and as long as organized crime has access to this large body of captive consumers who constitute a huge revenue stream, drug control will continue to wreak havoc in our societies.

Some might reply that regulation is a chimeric “silver bullet” and a simplistic solution; we argue, on the contrary, that the most simplistic strategy is to continue the current decades-long repressive war on drugs without admitting its evident failures. Now is the time to recognize that as long as we fail to address drugs correctly—respecting human rights and concentrating our efforts on organized crime—drug abuse and illicit trafficking will never be overcome.

Olusegun Obasanjo, Ricardo Lagos, Ruth Dreifuss – Former Presidents of Nigeria, Chile and Switzerland ; members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.