WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
11 Dec 2009

International Leaders and Noted Experts Discuss New Directions in Drug Policy

Despite a worldwide drug control treaty system and decades of massive investments to attack drug production and curtail supplies and consumption, illicit markets and criminal networks are still flourishing, threatening public health and safety. It is time for a reconsideration of drug policy. This was the message echoed today in Washington, DC by a panel of international leaders and experts at the forefront of the drug policy debate.

The event – sponsored by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), and the Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy – was held today at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 2:00pm to 5:00pm.

Please find excerpts of the speakers' presentations below.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Former President of Brazil and co-president of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which has called for a "new paradigm leading to safer, more efficient and humane drug policies."

"In terms of public policy, it is essential to acknowledge that drugs are harmful both for the user and for society. Thus reducing as much as possible their consumption must be the main goal. The discussion, therefore, is about different strategies to reach the same objective. So far, the dominant strategy has been the so-called ‘war on drugs.' […] This strategy has clearly failed. It must therefore be changed. This was the key conclusion of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy. We stated in unequivocal terms a hard fact: we are losing the war on drugs. The only concrete outcome of this strategy is to shift areas of cultivation and drug cartels from one region to the other, with no reduction in the violence and corruption generated by the drug trade. The next logistical step is what we have called a ‘paradigm shift.'

"Instead of sticking to failed policies that do not reduce the profitability and, as a consequence, the power of the drug trade, why not change gears? We must direct our efforts to the reduction of consumption and the reduction of the harm caused by drugs to people in society. This does not mean by any means to underestimate repression. Repression must have a clear and strong focus: fighting organized crime and corruption instead of incarcerating thousands of drug users. The trend toward change is gaining speed. The crack in the global consensus is widening."


Ruth Dreifuss, Former President of Switzerland.

Background information on Switzerland: Facing huge drug problems in the 80s, Switzerland had to develop a new approach to address public concerns. A new balanced strategy was put in place, based on prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and law enforcement. This four-pillar policy brings together public health and safety issues. Beyond reducing consumption, it focuses on targeting the problems associated with drug use that impact the rest of society like public safety. The four-pillar approach also offers a wide range of therapeutic possibilities and harm-reduction services, such as needle exchange programs for users, to maximize the rate of drug addicts on a path to recovery and control the other harms associated with drug use, such as the spread of HIV/AIDS. The policy has proven to be effective, saving thousands of lives and sharply diminishing drug-related crimes and harms.

"Harm reduction and law enforcement do not contradict one another. The Swiss approach shows that they support and reinforce each other."

"The four-pillar approach – prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and law enforcement – was controversial in the beginning, but became widely accepted over time with the results in increased safety and improved public health. As the evidence became available, the debate became less emotional and more practical."

"The main purpose of drug policy is to save lives. The only addicts who can recover are those who stay alive."


Mike Trace, Chair, International Drug Policy Consortium, and former Deputy Anti-Drug Coordinator, United Kingdom.

"Most people agree that our drug policy efforts over decades have not been conspicuously successful. The question that faces us is how to react to that reality. This delegation brings a wide range of experience of introducing new directions- we have no simple solutions, but we know that more of the same is not an option."


João Goulão, Portugal's national drug policy coordinator and Chairman of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the possession and acquisition of drugs for personal consumption.

"The Portuguese strategy consists in implementing a balanced approach between intervention on supply reduction and demand reduction. On this particular field, offering treatment to all those who need it (with a broad spectrum of programs) was elected as the first priority. For those who still don't seek treatment, the system doesn't give up. We try to approach them through a proactive attitude, according to their needs, and through investing in a better quality of life and longer expectancy of life. Decriminalization made the whole intervention more coherent since we consider the drug addict as a patient, not a criminal, sick people who need help. We don't attribute the good results we have had to decriminalization alone, but to all these integrated policies. What really matters is prevention, treatment, harm reduction."


John Walsh, Senior Associate for Drug Policy and the Andes, Washington Office on Latin America:

"We Americans have always prided ourselves as being practical people. Yet we've persisted with drug policies that haven't worked for us or anyone else. There's no excuse. There's a world of options to consider and it's hard to do worse than we are already."


For More Information Contact:
Kristel Mucino, Communications Coordinator, TNI/WOLA Drug Law Reform Project
[email protected]; cell (617) 584-1713