A high-profile panel featuring Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, discussed drug decriminalization Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Annan and Santos, joined by Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch, condemned drug prohibition as unsuccessful and insisted on a new approach.
"I believe that drugs have destroyed many people, but wrong governmental policies have destroyed many more," Annan said. "When we realized [alcohol] prohibition wasn't working we had the courage to change it."
A major aspect of Annan's condemnation of drug laws is their impact on young people given jail sentences and criminal records.
Marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington state are "only a step," Annan said, expressing hope such measures will be passed in "enough countries and enough momentum is created to break the back to this."
In addition to the two American states, whose residents voted in November 2012 to tax and regulate marijuana, only the small South American nation Uruguay has approved legalization.
"Where leaders fail to lead, the people can make them," Annan said. "What has prevented us from rising up and making a lot of noise that no politician can ignore?"
Santos, whose country is a famous source of cocaine, said "We, after 40 years, feel that we are on a sort of static bicycle... with the same problems."
When discussing drug reform, Santos clarified, he is talking about all illegal drugs.
"If you approach this problem from the point of view of taking away the profits from the gangs…you have to do this with all drugs," Santos said, "[But] the public policy health [approach] should be different... marijuana is different from coke."
Santos said most Colombians disagree with his position and said most politicians shy away from discussing drug policy.
"If you ask people, 'Do you want the drugs to be legalized?' in general they say no because they understand drugs are bad...they poison your kids," he said.
But depriving drug cartels of their cash cow would "be an enormous benefit for humanity," Santos said, and he's urging a multilateral new approach - albeit carefully avoiding a specific policy proposal.
The Colombian leader's argument extended beyond smashing cartels and dabbled in questions of justice.
"How can I tell a farmer with half a hectacre growing marijuana he will go to jail if in the state of Washington and Colorado it's legal?" he asked.
Santos called on politicians to be "a bit less hypocritical" and to talk openly about a new approach.
Perry joked he was the only person on stage who doesn't favor legalization of certain drugs.
"We [Texans] certainly would never jump out in front of the parade" on marijuana legalization, Perry said. But other American states have, in his opinion, a right to decide for themselves.
That's a more liberal position than the one held by the Obama administration. The Justice Department said in August it will conditionally allow Colorado and Washington to open state-licensed stores, but reserved the right to shut them down for violating federal law.
"I am a staunch promoter of the 10th Amendment," Perry said. States should be able to set their own policies on abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, he said, "then people will decide where they want to live."
On marijuana legalization, he said twice, "States should be allowed to make those decisions."
Perry said as governor he had begun to "implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization" by introducing alternative "drug courts" that offer treatment and softer penalties for more minor offenses.
But the Texas governor, in office since 2000 and not seeking re-election in 2014, made clear he doesn't favor outright legalization and cited a warning from former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., who co-founded the anti-legalization Smart Approaches to Marijuana group, that marijuana potency has increased.