Governments around the world should move beyond marijuana and legally regulate all drugs, including psychedelics, cocaine and heroin, a group of former world leaders and activists says in a report.

In its third report, being released Tuesday in New York, the Global Commission on Drug Policy repeats its past calls to end jail time for drug possession. But now the high-profile group recommends that governments take control by regulating the legal use of all drugs — a groundbreaking move it says could curb drug-related violence, improve public health and reap economic benefits. 

The panel of commissioners behind the latest report, called "Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies That Work," includes:

  • Louise Arbour, a former justice at the Supreme Court of Canada and former UN high commissioner for human rights.
  • Former presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Poland, Portugal and Switzerland.
  • Paul Volcker, former U.S. Federal Reserve chair.
  • Richard Branson, British entrepreneur and Virgin Group founder.
'We need our leaders to look at alternative, fact-based approaches. Much can be learned from successes and failures in regulating alcohol, tobacco, or pharmaceutical drugs.' - Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder and commissioner on the panel

Branson said governments can't go on "pretending" that the war on drugs is working.

"We need our leaders to look at alternative, fact-based approaches. Much can be learned from successes and failures in regulating alcohol, tobacco, or pharmaceutical drugs," he said in a statement. "The risks associated with drug use increase, sometimes dramatically, when they are produced, sold and consumed in an unregulated criminal environment. The most effective way to advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation."

Dr. Evan Wood, a University of British Columbia drug policy expert who worked as special adviser for the report, said the drug policy climate is evolving rapidly — from declaring a war on drugs, through enforcement, to waging an economic war on drugs by taxing and regulating, an approach that also reduces the associated violence and health risks.

Public health advocates across Canada have released reports with similar findings and recommendations, he said.

"The well-intentioned effort to criminalize the production, sale and use of these substances has not achieved the expected impact in terms of suppressing their availability and use," Wood told CBC News. "The traditional argument that we flip to another scenario where they're advertised and promoted and sold to children is a little bit disingenuous … there's probably a middle ground around the taxation and regulation of these substances that really implies the ability to improve public health and safety through their regulation and control."

Wood said while Canada does not have the same scale of drug-related gangs and violence as Latin American countries, some urban centres are struggling with the same problems fuelled by lucrative economies. Prohibition and mandatory minimum sentences have the adverse effect of creating illicit markets that increase public health and safety problems.

“Hopefully this will contribute to the broadening of the conversation that we need to be more thoughtful about this problem. Promising to crack down is good politics, but it’s actually not good policy,” he said.

While it won’t likely become a ballot box question, Wood expects legalizing marijuana and other drug policies will be issues in the next campaign.

UN drug policy review coming in 2016

The commission's report comes in advance of a major review of drug policies by the UN General Assembly scheduled for 2016. The commission hopes its recommendations will reshape the debate on global drug policy.

Louise Arbour

Louise Arbour, Canada's former Supreme Court justice and former UN high commissioner for human rights, is among the other high-profile members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. (Virginia Mayo/The Associated Press)

"Harsh measures grounded in repressive ideologies must be replaced by more humane and effective policies shaped by scientific evidence, public health and human rights standards," reads an executive summary of the report. "This is the only way to simultaneously reduce drug-related death, disease and suffering and the violence, crime, corruption and illicit markets associated with ineffective prohibitionist policies. The fiscal implications of the policies we advocate, it must be stressed, pale in comparison to the direct costs and indirect consequences generated by the current regime."

Commission member Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general, said it is time for governments to change course.

"We need drug policies informed by evidence of what actually works, rather than policies that criminalize drug use while failing to provide access to effective prevention or treatment," he said in a statement. "This has led not only to overcrowded jails, but also to severe health and social problems."

Here are the commission's key recommendations:

  • Putting health and community safety first requires a fundamental reorientation of policy priorities and resources, from failed punitive enforcement to proven health and social interventions … Spending on counterproductive enforcement measures should be ended, while proven prevention, harm reduction and treatment measures are scaled up to meet need.
  • Ensure equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medications for pain … Governments need to establish clear plans and timelines to remove the domestic and international obstacles to such provision.
  • Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession — and stop imposing "compulsory treatment" on people whose only offence is drug use or possession … these policies encourage high risk behaviours like unsafe injecting, deter people in need of treatment from seeking it, and divert law enforcement resources from focusing on serious criminality.
  • Rely on alternatives to incarceration for non-violent, low-level participants in illicit drug markets such as farmers, couriers and others involved in the production, transport and sale of illicit drugs.
  • Focus on reducing the power of criminal organizations as well as the violence and insecurity that result from their competition with both one another and the state. Allow and encourage diverse experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs, beginning with, but not limited to, cannabis, coca leaf and certain novel psychoactive substances.