25/11/2011 08:29 GMT | Updated 24/01/2012 05:12 GMT

The War On Drugs Has Failed - It's Time For A New Approach.

There is much debate as to what the best model of future drug control might look like, but the important thing is not the specific policy to be implemented, but the principles upon which they will be founded and the freedom for countries to experiment with new approaches.

The Beckley Foundation's Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform was launched last week, on 17 November, at an Event at the House of Lords. At the Meeting, high-level representatives from 14 countries gathered to debate drug policy reform.

"We are here on the 50th Anniversary of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs", the morning Chair announced, "but I think we all agree that this is not an anniversary to be celebrated."

Indeed, the War on Drugs has proven to be one of the most spectacular failures in the history of international policy. Despite half a century passing and trillions of dollars being spent, its noble intentions of protecting the 'health and welfare of mankind' by reducing the use, availability and harms of drugs have never reached fruition, and the violent criminal empires which the drug laws have unintentionally sponsored are more powerful and dangerous than ever.

It is vital to develop policies which respect scientific evidence, human rights and liberties, harm-reduction and fiscal responsibilities. This must develop from an empirical perspective rather than from one based on morality and ideology.

On 19 November, The Guardian and The Times published a Letter that I had written, calling upon members of the public and of parliament to recognise the failings of the current approach. This Letter was sent to the prime minister, to the Cabinet, and to every member of the Houses of Lords and Commons. It argues that drug dependency is a medical problem, not a criminal one, that most drug-use is not problematic, and that governments should consider ending the criminalisation of the hundreds of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

The Letter was signed by 60 eminent international figures, including 12 Nobel Prize winners and seven former Presidents, among them Jimmy Carter and Fernando Henrique Cardoso. There were signatories from the frontiers of: politics (George Schultz, former US Secretary of State); economics (Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow, whose students included five further Nobel Prize winners); business (Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, and Sean Parker, founding President of Facebook); academia (Noam Chomsky, at one time the world's most cited living scholar); medicine (former Presidents of the Royal College of Physicians and of Doctors of the World); and culture (Yoko Ono, Bernardo Bertolucci, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gilberto Gil and Sting). The Letter reinforces and complements the message of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include Kofi Annan and four former Presidents, among them former President Ruth Dreifuss of Switzerland, who presented their Report at our House of Lords Meeting.

It is extremely important for politicians and the public to understand that the devastating failure of the War on Drugs is one of the most significant and pressing issues in the world today, and that the calls for reform are heralded by some of the world's most distinguished, respected and intelligent people. This is not an issue that can continue to be ignored.

Reducing the demand and use of drugs is, in theory, probably the best way of decreasing drug-harms. Drug policy over the past fifty years has enforced strict prohibition on the basis of this premise. However, we must remember that if policy fails to achieve reduction of drug-use, as it has, we must consider other ways to accomplish the ultimate goal of minimising harms.

Decriminalisation is the primary step for policy reform, but it is also important that we open discussion on the possibilities of regulated and taxed drug-markets. The benefits of such an approach include depriving violent criminal cartels of their funding, minimising drug-harms caused by unknown constituents and impurities, preventing exploitation of producers, and strengthening our economy. While the governments of the consumer countries refuse to consider new approaches, there will be no end to the bloodshed and injustice that exists in the producer and transit nations.

Sadly, there may still be a long way to go before we see significant changes in global drug policy. To that end it is vital that we continue our efforts to keep the international discussion on policy reform open.

There is much debate as to what the best model of future drug control might look like, but the important thing is not the specific policy to be implemented, but the principles upon which they will be founded and the freedom for countries to experiment with new approaches. Without experimentation there can be little room for collection of evidence, and without evidence there can be no rational policy.

It is only by lessening the strangulation of the UN Conventions that countries will be free to experiment with alternative approaches. That is why the Beckley Foundation has commissioned Professor Robin Room to write the Report entitled Rewriting the UN Drug Conventions, which will form a template for how the Conventions might be amended to permit individual countries more freedom to form policies better suited to their special needs. The current one-size-fits-all prohibitionist approach laid down fifty years ago has failed and will continue to fail until our politicians have the courage to express publicly what many of them acknowledge privately. It is time to break the taboo that has frozen progress for half a century.

The time for change is now.