Just Say No to Drug War?

Originally appearing here. Juan Manuel Santos, incumbent President of Colombia, which has fought a long-time war on drugs with the support of the U.S., has just signed a public letter questioning that war on grounds of efficacy, cost, side effects, and fairness. According to a public letter circulated by the Beckley Foundation, which was founded in the UK by Amanda Feilding, the global war on drugs “has failed and has had many unintended and devastating consequences worldwide.” Failed how? Drugs are “cheaper, purer, and more available.” The unsuccessful “war” on drugs is costing taxpayers “billions per year.” The drug industry, the “third most valuable industry in the world,” is “all in the control of criminals.” This cash flow pays for rampant “corruption.” And people’s lives are being wrecked when they are deprived of freedom (and then of a vote). Breaking the Taboo, a new documentary on the war on drugs, can be viewed on YouTube as of December 7, and serves as part of the Beckley Foundation’s challenge to prohibitionist policies encoded in a U.N. convention on “narcotic” drugs. Inspired in part by a Brazilian film of the same name that had its premiere in Rio in 2011, the new documentary is narrated by Morgan Freeman and directed by Cosmo Feilding Mellen of Sundog Pictures in London. Meanwhile, Beckley’s public letter has attracted many signatures. It is hard enough to get support from leaders no longer in office, such as, in Europe, the past presidents of Poland and Switzerland; and in Latin America, the past presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico; as well as, in the U.S., past presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of whom are featured in the new documentary, Breaking the Taboo. All of them are signers. It is very much harder to win the commitment of a sitting leader, such as Otto Perez Molina, President of Guatemala, also a signer, as well as, now, Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. In the cautious language of diplomacy, the Beckley letter states that “we must seriously consider shifting resources away from criminalizing tens of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens and move toward an approach based on health, harm-reduction, cost-effectiveness, and respect for human rights.” In addition to the various presidents, past and present, the letter has now been signed by a dozen Nobel Prize winners, various former public officials, professors, writers, as well as by Sting, Yoko Ono, and Richard Branson. Among the professors are not only the well-known progressive Noam Chomsky, but also his neighbor in Cambridge, the relatively conservative Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. In calling for harm-reduction, Beckley’s letter is quite specific about the cause of the harm. “At the root of current policies lies the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.”* “As the production, demand [for] and use of drugs cannot be eradicated, new ways must be found to minimize harm, and new policies, based on scientific evidence, must be explored.” Consider a metaphor from ancient culture of Hawaii, where, on the Big Island, I first met Amanda Feilding. Along the west coast is the City of Refuge, where, according to the National Park Service, “those who violated the kapu (sacred laws)” could come for sanctuary. If they made it within the wall, they were safe from retribution. Located in the UK, the Beckley Foundation is creating a sort of global refuge for those who are breaking the taboo of the drug war, a growing sanctuary that is endorsed by various world leaders and documented in the new film. The campaign to question the war on drugs is notably inter-generational. Richard Branson’s son Sam works at Sundog Pictures with Cosmo Feilding Mellen, director of the new documentary and a son of the woman who founded the Beckley Foundation. Apart from helping to organize a reconsideration of public policy on drugs, the Beckley Foundation is supporting and in some cases taking part in research on these molecules (details on its website). In this, it parallels the efforts of such U.S. nonprofits as the Heffter Research Institute and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). The latter has supported research that found MDMA useful, as an adjunct to psychotherapy, in treating post traumatic stress disorder. Craig Comstock writes for The Huffington Post about the war on drugs, citing that government-approved research into psychedelics is a step in the right direction.