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Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch

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Online Debate Breaks Global Drug Policy Reform Taboo

Posted: 16/03/2012 18:13

Last year, the Global Commission on Drug Policy called for an open debate on the global war on drugs. On Tuesday night, they went a long way to achieving this objective. A live debate streamed via YouTube entitled 'It's Time to End the War on Drugs' was watched by millions over the world. This pioneering method of engagement on social and political issues has given the drug war debate a global audience that was unthinkable a few years ago.

Non-governmental organisations and prominent individuals have tirelessly worked to propel this once marginal debate into the public realm. In doing so, they have garnered unprecedented public support and raised the issue on the global political agenda.

An impressive line-up of public figures advocated for global drug policy reform-at King's Hall in London and via video-link at 'Google hangouts' across the globe- including Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, Vicente Fox, former President of Mexico and Sir Richard Branson. They represent an eclectic mix of professional backgrounds: former heads of state, businessmen, journalists. It points to the mainstreaming of the movement and its increasingly diverse support base. Specialist NGOs are now working together with key international players, to strategically push for change.

The debate was opened with a statement from current President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, whose potential influence as a sitting head of state advocating for an open debate on this issue should not be underestimated. Santos said "It's time for an in-depth discussion on this issue. All, I repeat, all the options must be considered. A rigorous, evidence-based discussion is needed on the costs and benefits of the alternatives, which should be led by scientists and experts."

Experts in support of the motion proceeded to eloquently present the arguments in favour of an end to the war on drugs and the alternatives to failed prohibitionist policies. They argued that the war on drugs is a waste of public funds, which has not achieved its aims of reducing supply of, and demand for, illicit substances. The war on drugs is in fact a war on drug users, filling prisons with those who have not committed violent offences and fuelling an HIV pandemic by failing to provide adequate health services to those in need. Alternative policy approaches, such as decriminalization in Portugal, were highlighted as experiments with legal reforms that have reduced problematic drug use and drastically curbed HIV transmission amongst people who inject drugs.

The online audience did not take much persuading, with 92% of online voters supporting the motion in the pre-debate poll. This nonetheless increased to 95% at the end of the debate. These figures are echoed in the results of surveys commissioned by Richard Branson prior to the debate, which found that 91% of those surveyed wanted an end to the war on drugs. This resounding support gives a clear mandate to the movement to influence political will for reform.

Former President of Brazil and Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, said "There is a clear rise in public perception on the flaws of the current approach to deal with drugs in our society. We can no longer afford the levels of violence in Mexico, Brazil, Central America and West Africa, the trillions of dollars spent on this endless war and the obstacles it presents to harm reduction policies. It is about time that the UN and politicians in office engage on a constructive debate towards decriminalisation, regulation and public health programs that may reduce violence whilst preventing and relieving the suffering of drug abusers."

This debate has achieved the global platform it deserves. The support base of the reform movement is increasingly broad and influential. The next steps are to seize this momentum, and urge governments and multilateral institutions to let go of failed prohibitionist approaches and replace them with drug policies grounded in science, health, security and human rights.