The night before the first meeting of UN member-states to discuss drugs in nearly two decades, more than 1,000 leaders worldwide have signed a letter pushing for “real reform” of drug policy.
Addressed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the letter contains signatures from former presidents, celebrities, academics, law enforcement officials, faith leaders, and businessmen.
The list includes a wide range of U.S. figures from presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to pop culture icons like John Legend and Busta Rhymes.
It’s a diverse group with a singular goal: end the war on drugs.
“Sen. Sanders signed the letter because he believes the war on drugs has been a failure,” spokesperson Josh Miller-Lewis told The Daily Beast Tuesday. “Families have been torn apart and far too many people have been put in jail for nonviolent crimes. Instead, Sen. Sanders advocates for drug policy grounded in science, health and human rights.”
He’s not alone.
“The drug control regime that emerged during the last century has proven disastrous for global health, security and human rights,” the letter reads. “Focused overwhelmingly on criminalization and punishment, it created a vast illicit market that has enriched criminal organizations, corrupted governments, triggered explosive violence, distorted economic markets and undermined basic moral values.”
While boasting a powerful set of names, the letter is not the first to beseech the UN for major reform. In 2014, the most distinguished economists in the world—including five Nobel Prize winners—penned a similar letter to the UN. “Their lack of knowledge results in vitriolic reactions, overreactions,” John Collins of the London School of Economics said of UN officials at the time. “At this point, they’re doing more harm than the drugs themselves.”
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance—the organization that spearheaded the project—hopes this one will be different. “The influence and diversity of the leaders who signed this letter is unprecedented,” said Nadelmann. “Never before have so many respected voices joined together in calling for fundamental reform of drug control policies.”
Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a pioneer in the war on drugs, is equally positive. Blumenauer is spending the week in New York for The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) summit, hoping to be a voice of reason. Donning a bright green bowtie at the Cannabis Science and Policy Summit on Tuesday, Blumenauer has a unique perspective.
Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996, he’d been exposed to the negative byproducts of marijuana prohibition in Oregon years before. “It didn’t make sense to me then to criminalize something that’s less dangerous than tobacco and alcohol and I continue to feel that way,” he told The Daily Beast. “My assessment is that this is a whole lot of trouble that’s absolutely unnecessary and unjustified.”
While in Congress, he’s helped shape marijuana reform nationwide—where 24 states now have access to legal marijuana. He credits Barack Obama for being the first president to “tell the truth about marijuana,” and says its possible he could remove marijuana from the Schedule I substance list. “I’ve talked personally to the president about this and said that I hope he’s not done.” Blumenauer said. “He kind of smiled and said ‘Well, we’re doing lots of things.’”
As for the next president, he’s confident that either Sanders or Clinton would keep drug reform from falling by the wayside. “I’ve talked personally with Hillary Clinton about this and I think she would continue moving along this line,” said Blumenauer. “I think Bernie Sanders would too. I don’t think anybody’s going to be elected president who is anti-marijuana.”
Until then, the letter serves as a benchmark of progress, at least in shifting mindsets. “Humankind cannot afford a 21st century drug policy as ineffective and counter-productive as the last century’s,” the letter reads. “A new global response to drugs is needed, grounded in science, compassion, health, and human rights.”