Sometimes, to understand something, you have to take an outsider’s point of view. That’s why, to get perspective on the United States’ drug laws, Pacific Standard turned to Ruth Dreifuss, a former president of Switzerland (and the first woman to hold that role).
As a politician, Dreifuss supported needle exchanges and supervised injection facilities for Switzerland. Now, she chairs the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of ex-heads of state from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and Latin America who advocate for progressive drug laws. The Commission wants countries to eliminate punishments for drug users, and to explore whether drug legalization might prove an effective policy. Some of the Commission's ideas aren't likely to catch on soon in the U.S., but others offer interesting possible solutions to the U.S.’s opioid-overdose epidemic and other struggles with drugs.
Pacific Standard talked with Dreifuss to learn more about her group's recommendations, plus how leaders overseas expect American drug laws to play out under a future President Donald Trump.
Does the U.S. have a big effect on drug laws worldwide?
The U.S. was very instrumental in the building of the international control regime for drugs. I think, without the influence of the U.S., we wouldn't have such a general prohibition in the world. For many years they were the watchdog of the system.
How would you characterize America’s drug laws over the last eight years, during the Obama administration?
In the last years, awareness has increased of the huge toll that harsh, punitive policy exacts on human life and well-being. The idea that the U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world population, but that they have nearly 25 percent of the worldwide known prison population — I think this was something that changed the view of former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Obama was the first president to visit federal prisons. The stories of the non-violent drug offenders he pardoned are such terrible stories, where people have lost their families, jobs, everything that could help them have a future in society. These stories really showed this is not the way.
What do you think President-elect Donald Trump will do about U.S. drug laws?
I think the president-elect is a question mark at this stage. Nobody knows what he really will do. He didn't show great compassion for the people during his campaign and I fear that compassion for people who are consuming drugs will not be his priority.
I am also concerned that many people around the president-elect belong to strong religious movements with a tendency to think that the moral point of view should be given higher consideration than the freedom of the individual. I am afraid that some people around the president-elect will be not pragmatic, not compassionate.
I don't think Trump is such a question mark. He's talked a little bit about his views on drugs. For example, he said building a wall and securing the U.S.-Mexico border will stop the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. Is that expected to work?
It is not. The roads for the traffic of cocaine and marijuana move from one day to the next. It was once more on the Caribbean side of the border. Now it is in the middle, with some substances going to Africa before coming back to the States by boat or by plane. It's an illusion to think you can stop traffic with a wall.
This is the reason the Commission advocates for regulating the entire chain and having the state take control: You cannot stop it as long as it brings such great benefits to criminal organizations.
I think that there is a need for all the countries to collaborate to fight criminal drug rings. This is to be done through intelligence, through being embedded in criminal organizations. Fight corruption, fight money laundering.
I can't imagine very many countries agreeing to legalize and control the trade of heroin, cocaine, and other drugs from top to bottom.
Not tomorrow, but countries will one day or another have to recognize that the real solution is to take away from criminal hands this lucrative, very beneficial market.
You've talked about cracking down on drug rings, but also about offering alternatives to punishment to certain people in the drug trade, such as growers and user-dealers. How do you distinguish between someone who deserves to be punished and someone who doesn’t?
I think violence is a very important criterion and, I would say, the freedom of choice that people had. For some people, where you see it is difficult for them to find a living in another way, there should be an alternative to punishment such as community service. There should be ways to distance people from the criminal organization and to help these people reintegrate into society.
What are some big trends in drug laws that are happening internationally?
We are in a stage where we cannot speak about reform on the international level in the sense of renegotiation of the conventions. We are in a stage where the pragmatic experience of the countries is beginning to be exchanged. For instance, the discussion about safe consumption is just beginning in the States after 10 years in Europe.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.