Kofi Annan: We must change the way people think about drugs

The author with former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan

In 2013, Kofi Annan – the former Secretary General of the United Nations, who hails from Ghana – advocated a rethink on drug policy in his native region, where he convened the West Africa Commission on Drugs. This group denounced international efforts to intensify prohibitionism in the region; “West Africa must not become a new front line in the failed ‘war on drugs’” the Commission outlined in their first major report, Not Just In Transit, “[as it] has neither reduced drug consumption nor put traffickers out of business”.

Annan’s work on drug policy reform is by no means confined to Africa. Alongside Ernesto Zedillo, Richard Branson, and a host of other current or former political or business leaders, Annan created the Global Commission on Drug Policy. In 2014, the group unashamedly decried the failure – and harms caused by – the global War on Drugs. Annan insisted that prohibition’s failure has been undeniable: “the facts speak for themselves. It is time to change course”.

Some of the world’s most influential men and women had called for an end to the costly and deadly drug war, yet in most nations, policy makers haven’t even had a debate about implementing alternatives.

During our conversation, Annan argued that this lack of international support was not unexpected; world leaders are aware of the futility of the drug war, but are afraid of domestic costs. “More world leaders are realising that drugs [are] a health problem. In West Africa we spoke to leaders and showed them our reports, but many are too worried about what their citizens will think. Some people see drug liberalisation as the government saying that drugs are OK. And particularly, some religious people often don’t want to see these laws change because of their beliefs.”

The use of imprisonment as deterrence or punishment for drug offenders has is expensive, Annan argued, as well as having disastrous results. “You can see the results of these policies, as there are now more prisons than universities in the U.S., and they have the private prisons so people are profiting from these laws continuing, [despite] it costing the state.”

Annan described the importance of shifting the focus of drug policy from an issue of criminal justice to one of healthcare and compassion. An important element of this, he suggested, was that different people could have considerably different relationships with drugs. “We need to approach different drugs with different policies,” he insisted. “China pushed for a [worldwide ban on] ketamine, and we successfully stopped them from doing that. Ketamine needs to be accessible; that’s all they have in some countries for pain relief.”

Although some successful steps have been taken to move global drug policy away from prohibitionism, and towards rationality and compassion, there is still a long way to go. Annan placed blame for this lack of progress on the entrenchment of prohibitionist ideals within public opinion. Nevertheless, he seemed cautiously optimistic about the future. “With the UNGASS (UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs) in 2016, we’ll begin some serious international discussions, but I don’t know if that itself will bring a serious change. First, there must be a change in the way that people think and talk about drugs.”

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