By James Reinl 

The world's governments used to agree on tackling the use of cocaine, cannabis and other narcotics. Policies, such as locking up dealers, traffickers and even users, were underpinned by global treaties from the 1960s onwards as the US led a war on drugs.

That system is crumbling as ever-more Western nations, from Portugal to the United States, rewrite rules on whether cannabis and other drugs should be available to sufferers of multiple sclerosis and other maladies, decriminalised or even legalised, so that people can use them for recreation.

Experts warn of a polarised world in which reformers, such as Switzerland and some Latin American countries that have borne the brunt of narco-gang violence, clash with Russia, China and many Asian and Middle Eastern states that hold tougher lines against drugs.

James Cockayne, a scholar at United Nations University, the world body's think-tank, warned that the consensus on drugs is fragmenting, creating headaches for policymakers and a vacuum of leadership that could be exploited by drug cartels. 

"We're concerned about policy fragmentation and worsening coordination between states, making it harder to safeguard global public health and throwing up a range of unexpected trans-border spillover effects," Cockayne told Al Jazeera.

"Countries that wish to legalise cannabis and trade it with others will run into treaties designed with prohibition in mind, undermining a system that helps governments collectively combat criminal networks and other bad actors."

"Efforts to create a drug-free world have clearly failed," Cleia Noia, an analyst at the Social Science Research Council, a think-tank, told Al Jazeera. 

"A blanket prohibition policy has been hugely negative, criminalising people for low-level activities and drug use, often women and ethnic minorities. And has any of it made it harder for teenagers to buy drugs?"

In the US, ever-harsher drugs sentences saw the prison population quadruple to 2.3 million people from 1980 to 2008, with blacks behind bars at six times the rate of whites, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or  NAACP,  a social equality campaign group. 

In Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica and Ecuador, more than 60 percent of women prisoners were jailed for drug offences - often poverty-racked mothers who became drug mules for quick cash, according to the  International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC). 

"It's time to change the metrics by which we measure success," Heather Haase, an IDPC expert, told Al Jazeera.

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