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How Kofi Annan, Richard Branson and 7 Former Presidents Changed the Worldwide Debate on Drugs

Tony Newman

I have been blown away to see how a committed group of leaders can have a global impact when it comes to the world’s longest war: the war on drugs.

Last week the Global Commission on Drug Policy made worldwide news at a press conference in New York when they called for not just ending the criminalization of people who use drugs, but also the responsible legal regulation of drugs.  And they weren’t just talking about marijuana – they call for legal regulation of as many drugs as possible. The Commission is the most distinguished group of high-level leaders to ever call for such far-reaching changes.

To fully grasp the far-reaching impact of the Global Commission on the worldwide debate, we need to look at their 5-year history.

The Global Commission’s forerunner was the Latin American Commission on Drug Policy, which was formed in 2009 by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former Colombian President César Gaviria. The group strategically called for “breaking the taboo” when it comes to the drug war and its alternatives. That these former presidents represented three of the countries that had been most devastated by drug war violence gave them substantial credibility, making headlines in Latin America and throughout the world.

In 2011 the group expanded its reach by bringing in several former European heads of state, former UN head Kofi Annan, business mogul Richard Branson, former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Paul Volcker. The newly-christened Global Commission on Drug Policy launched a seminal report calling for marijuana legalization and drug decriminalization that led to thousands of articles from virtually every major media outlet in the world. They also made a passionate call for current heads of state to take the next step. 

And that’s exactly what happened. Presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala, and José Mujica in Uruguay all started questioning the failed drug war and calling for alternatives.

At the Summit of the Americas in April 2012, drug policy reform was a major topic of debate for the first time in the Summit’s history. In November 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first political jurisdictions in the world to legally regulate marijuana. In May 2013, the Organization of American States produced a report, commissioned by heads of state of the region, which included legalization as a likely policy alternative. Last December, Uruguay took the discussion another step further by becoming the first country in the world to approve the legal regulation of the production, distribution and sale of marijuana.

In turn, these developments instigated the process that resulted in the upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016, which will present the opportunity to lay the foundation of a new drug control regime for the 21st century. Whereas the previous UNGASS meetings were dominated by rhetorical calls for a “drug-free world” and concluded with unrealistic goals, the upcoming UNGASS will undoubtedly be shaped by the recommendations of the Global Commission.

Last week, the Global Commission had their eye on 2016 when they released Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work, at a press conference in New York City. The Commissioners emphasized – with surprising courage, thoughtfulness and candor – that if we truly want to address the root causes of crime, corruption and violence, we need to talk about legally regulating drugs.

The genie is out of the bottle. Thanks to the Global Commission, the debate about how our society should deal with drugs will never be the same.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (

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