NEW YORK — A high-level international panel criticized the war on drugs as a failure Thursday and called on governments to undertake experiments to decriminalize the use of drugs, especially marijuana, in order to undermine the power of organized crime.
Compiled by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the report concludes that criminalization and repressive measures have failed with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.
"Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won," the report said.
The 19-member commission includes former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, Greece's prime minister, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former U.S. officials George P. Schultz and Paul Volcker, the writers Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, and British billionaire Richard Branson.
At a news conference launching the report, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who chairs the commission said ending the war on drugs does not imply complete liberalization.
"The fact is that the war on drugs is a failure," he said. "Being a failure is not saying that you have nothing to do with drugs. You have to act. The drug are infiltrating the local power in several parts of the world. Corruption is increasing and the consumption of drugs is also increasing."
Instead of punishing drug users, the commission argues that governments should "end the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others."
The commission urged governments to experiment "with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens." It said this recommendation applies especially to marijuana.
Mr. Branson, speaking at the press conference, highlighted the drug wars' high cost.
"It's estimated that over one trillion have been spent on fighting this unwinnable battle," he said. "The irony is that a regulated market — one that is tightly controlled, one that would offer support not prison to those with drug problems — would cost taxpayers much less money."
The report called for drug policies based on methods they said would be empirically proven to reduce crime, lead to better health and promote economic and social development.
The commission is especially critical of the U.S., which its members say must lead changing its anti-drug policies from being guided by anti-crime approaches to ones rooted in health care and human rights.
The office of White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said the report was misguided.
"Drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated. Making drugs more available — as this report suggests — will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe," Office of National Drug Control Policy spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said.
That office cites statistics showing declines in U.S. drug use compared with 30 years ago, along with a more recent 46 percent drop in current cocaine use among young adults over the past five years.
The report cited U.N. estimates that opiate use increased 34.5 percent worldwide and cocaine 27 percent from 1998 to 2008, while the use of cannabis, or marijuana, was up 8.5 percent.