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Rock Stars, Politicians, Doctors Support Drug Policy Reform

04/19/2014 12:21 EDT | Updated 06/18/2014 05:59 EDT

At 84, Gustavo de Greiff is one of the rock stars of the drug policy reform movement. He's joined by real rock stars like Sting, and an international who's who of business and politics like Sir Richard Branson and George Shultz, secretary of state under former U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

In Canada, Ujjal Dosanjh, a former federal health minister who was also a B.C. premier, big city mayors, several former B.C. attorneys general, academics, medical health officers, and parents of addicted children are critical of prohibition of marijuana and other drugs.

As Colombia's attorney general in 1992, de Greiff accomplished his major assignment: capturing notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. Yet just a month before the dramatic takedown, de Greiff, a small, scholarly man, stunningly declared publicly that he believed the War on Drugs was a failure.

De Greiff was in Baltimore for the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, an annual event that until recently focused almost exclusively on defending the War on Drugs. De Greiff, a former professor of law and political science, told delegates that fighting drug trafficking was a lost cause and that the only way to halt the black market trade was legalization and regulation of drugs. He argued that drug use in the U.S. fuelled drug production in Colombia and the extreme violence of the illegal trade.

The condemnations came fast and furious including from Colombia's then president Cesar Gavira, who assured the international community that Colombia's drug policy would remain firmly rooted in prohibition.

In 2007, de Greiff spoke in Vancouver and repeated his message. After touring the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, where thousands of addicts inject drugs in alleys and the area's squalid hotels, he commented that the failure of the War on Drugs should be especially obvious to Vancouver residents and politicians.

Many engaged in the reform movement cite fear as a major obstacle to ending prohibition.

"The fear comes from not knowing," says Dosanjh. "And if you don't know, the reaction is to say you can't do that rather than 'I don't know. Let me think about it.' There are people who say we cannot really control and distribute drugs. Well, we control liquor. We control cigarettes."

Dr. Evan Wood, a lead researcher at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, says a major challenge for reform advocates is explaining that legalization and regulation are solutions to problems of drug use and trafficking.

In 2012, Evans secured $3 million from mining giant Goldcorp to train 20 doctors in addiction medicine. In 2011, he founded the Stop the Violence BC campaign to demonstrate the links between gang violence and B.C.'s lucrative illegal cannabis trade.

"Fear is the biggest challenge that Stop the Violence BC has faced and helping people understand that a taxation and regulation strategy would do a better job with prevention," said Wood, who in 2012 was named to BC Business magazine's 40 Under 40 list of accomplished professionals.

"The reality is that young people today have easier access to marijuana than to alcohol and tobacco. That should be the core of the conversation right now," he said.