George Shultz was among the first to understand drug policy and prohibition

George Shultz was among the first to understand drug policy and prohibition
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The late George Shultz was among the founding members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of former heads of state and other personalities, which I currently chair. We advocate for an end to the “war on drugs” and its dire consequences, which are felt at a global scale.

Shultz, who died this month at age 100, was a secretary in the Nixon administration at the announcement of the war on drugs in 1971 and the last U.S. member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Shultz was among the first politicians at his level to acknowledge that attempts to prohibit drugs do not and will not work. It took decades more for the U.S. House of Representatives to reach his conclusion and legislate, in December 2020, to decriminalize cannabis through the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act). The legislation is limited to one substance and is yet to be passed by the Senate. 

To Shultz, the impacts of drug policies in the Western Hemisphere, supported politically, financially and militarily by the U.S., “outsourced the violence, in effect, to Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras. And earlier, Colombia.” It goes without saying that the levels of use and trafficking in those countries, as well as in the United States, have seen no decline despite the heavy investment made in a repressive drug control apparatus.

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Shultz understood from an economic perspective that while there was demand for drugs, there would be supply, and that while drugs remained illegal, a profitable market would be left in the hands of organized crime. He appreciated that harsher and more punitive approaches would make that market function in more dire conditions, affecting most its most vulnerable stakeholders, and that the market would flourish regardless. 

Time and again, Shultz pointed out that a profitable market that is unregulated is bound to create immense challenges, and to “corrupt societies.” He said that drug control should not be about putting repressive efforts on drug “producing” and “transiting” countries in forlorn attempts to protect the citizens of richer “consuming” nations from the “threat” of addiction. He was right. Not only has this dichotomy between producing and consuming countries unbalanced the global response and created major social, cultural and economic disasters in low- and middle-income countries; it no longer is even reliable since synthetic drugs and pill mills have blurred the lines with production now closer to consumers in the high-income economies.

So, what solutions did Shultz suggest? From the early 1990s, he called for “taking the profit out of the system” by legalizing drugs, breaking a veritable taboo when speaking out on that. He stated clearly, and with much courage, that the core problem with prevailing drug policies was not the mismanagement of prohibition’s implementation, but rather prohibition itself. In 2021, with all the accumulated data and evidence, many politicians still will not openly state this simple truth about prohibition. 

Legalization for Shultz, as for all members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, is not about being indifferent to drugs or promoting them like any other commercial good. It is advocated because, like most people in society, we care about illegal drugs and their potential consequences. We call for their legalization accompanied by clear regulation that defines access to these substances. Prohibition is a system that builds profits for criminals; regulated legal models should be the substitute system that protects people.

George Shultz once said: “I feel that if somebody doesn’t get up and start talking about this now, the next time around, when we have the next iteration of these programs, it will still be true that everyone is scared to talk about it. No politician wants to say what I just said, not for a minute.” 

With the MORE Act, the current U.S. Congress has a historic moment to usher in a new iteration of drug policy based on evidence and reason, putting people’s health and well-being front and center.

Helen Clark is the former prime minister of New Zealand, former administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and current chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.