A high-level international commission has declared the global "war on drugs" to be a failure, and has urged countries to consider legalising certain drugs, including cannabis, in a bid to undermine organised crime.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy, in its report released on Thursday, called for a new approach to the current strategy of reducing drug abuse by strictly criminalising drugs and incarcerating users.
It said the new approach should focus on battling the criminal cartels that control the drug trade, rather than targeting drug users.
"The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world," the report said.
The study urged "experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs", adding: "This recommendation applies especially to cannabis, but we also encourage other experiments in decriminalisation and legal regulation."
Illegal drug use
About 250 million people worldwide use drugs that are currently deemed illegal, with less than a tenth of them classified as "dependent". Millions are also involved in the cultivation, production and distribution of drugs, according to the United Nations estimates quoted in the report.
The study said decriminalisation initiatives have not been accompanied by a significant spike in drug use, citing the implementation of such policies in Australia, Portugal and the Netherlands.
"Now is the time to break the taboo on discussion of all drug policy options, including alternatives to drug prohibition," Cesar Gaviria, the former Colombian president, said.
The commission called for the urgent implementation of fundamental reforms in national and international drug control policies.
In particular, it recommended that the focus of drug control policies be moved from users as well as "farmers, couriers and petty sellers", and onto the large criminal organisations involved in the drug trade.
It called on governments to "end the criminalisation, marginalisation and stigmatisation of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others".
"Arresting and incarcerating tens of millions of these people in recent decades has filled prisons and destroyed lives and families without reducing the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organisations," the report said.
Treatment services recommended
It said that drug users who need health and treatment services should be offered them.
"Let's start by treating drug addiction as a health issue, reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives and legally regulating rather than criminalising cannabis," Fernando Cardoso, the former Brazilian president, said.
The changed approach would focus law enforcement resources more against violent organised crime and drug traffickers, while providing alternative sentences for small-scale or first-time drug dealers.
The report said "vast expenditure" had been spent on criminalisation and repressive measures.
"Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use," it said.
The 19-member panel includes current Greek prime minister George Papandreou, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, British businessman Richard Branson and former US secretary of state George Shultz.
Other members include former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss, former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and former US Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker.