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Why "The War on Drugs" Has Failed

It's time to develop new thinking and new policies about drugs.

The War on Drugs is a waste of time, money and lives. It cannot be won. It has been a failure. It's time that leaders develop new thinking and new policies about the issue of drugs. A new international report clearly shows why the war on drugs has failed.

Filling prisons with drug users has done nothing to curb the billion dollar illicit business. Arresting small-time dealers does little but create business opportunities for others. Destroying drug crops in one region just relocates it to another.

The term "War on Drugs," was first used by President Richard Nixon in 1971 has been a campaign of prohibition and foreign military aid and military intervention, with the assistance of participating countries, intended to define and reduce the illegal drug trade. It's interesting to note that the term War on Drugs has been carried over to "The War on Terror," neither of which can actually be successfully achieved.

The U.S. has the second highest incarceration rate in the world, and soon will become the highest. The vast majority of people in prisons are there for drug-related crimes, and a disproportionate number of them are black people.

A 2008 study by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron has estimated that legalizing drugs would inject $76 billion into the U.S. economy.

It has been well documented that the CIA, DEA, State Department and several other government agencies have been implicated in various drug trafficking enterprises since World War II, which were used to fund illegal covert activities in several countries. At the same time the government led the public discourse on the evils of drugs.

In 1986, the U.S. Defense Department, funded a 2 year study by the RAND corporation which found that the use of the military to interdict drugs coming into the U.S. would have little or no effect on cocaine traffic and actually raised the profits of cocaine cartels. The National Research Council Committee on the Data and Research for Policy on illegal Drugs published a report in the mid-1990's which agreed with the RAND study, which recommended a switch to drug treatment and social policy which would be 23 times more effective than the so-called War on Drugs. The reports were largely ignored by government leaders.

Richard Davenport-Hines, in his book, The Pursuit of Oblivion, points out that only 10-15% of illicit heroin and 30% of illicit cocaine is intercepted. Drug traffickers have profits of at least 300%, so 75% of drug shipments would have to be intercepted before traffickers profits are hurt. This conclusion echoes the comments of the former President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, commenting on his country's and the U.S.'s efforts to reduce the supply of coca leafs, said that the War on Drugs had failed, despite the huge amounts of money spent on interdiction, claiming that in the years 1980 to 1990, coca production actually increased 10 fold.

At least 500 economists, including Nobel prize winners Milton Friedman, George Akerlof and Vernon Smith have concluded that reducing the supply of marijuana though interdiction without reducing the public demand, causes the price and therefore the profits of drug cartels to rise.  Despite over $7 billion spent annually towards arresting and prosecuting nearly 800,000 people for marijuana offenses in the U.S. in 2005, according to the FBI, the federally-funded Monitoring the Future Study reported that 85% of high school seniors found marijuana "easy to obtain."

Numerous experts have criticized The War on Drugs as the wrong approach to deal with the problem. They argue that by favoring domestic law endorsement in instead of treatment, the government has focused on enforcement instead of dealing with treatment as a social problem. In addition, by making drugs illegal rather than regulating them, The War on Drugs creates a highly profitable black market, and increasing levels of violent crime.

Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply have not worked. Violence and the organized crime associated with the drug trade are getting worse, not better, despite the current policies.  The alarming power of the drug cartels leads to a criminalization of politics and a politicization of crime. And the corruption of the judicial and political system is undermining the foundations of democracy in several Latin American countries.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy, just released, argues that the 4 decade long war on drugs campaign has failed and in fact, has made the problem worse. The international panel of members of the commission includes former presidents and leaders of Brazil, Mexico, Columbia and Switzerland, including Ruth Dreifuss, the former President of Switzerland, Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, George Pappandreau, former Prime Minister of Greece, Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve Chairman, and Richard Branson, Chairman of the Virgin Group.

The report noted that the poorly designed drug enforcement practices actually have increased the level of violence, intimidation and corruption. A good example is in Mexico, where at least 36,000 people have died since 2006, when President Calderon declared war on drugs, using his military to attack the drug cartels. The death toll is increasing, as is the drug trade, and the country is becoming increasingly unsafe, even for tourists. Increased interdiction and enforcement has done nothing to curtail the drug trade.

Former Swiss President, Ruth Dreifuss, a member of the panel, says, "overwhelming evidence demonstrates the human and social benefits of treating drug addiction as a health, rather than a a criminal justice problem."

The panel's report says there is a myth that majority of people who use drugs are "amoral and pitiful addicts." Of the estimated 250 million drug users worldwide, the U.N. estimates that less than 10% can be classified as problem drug users. The panel also argues that drug policies should be based on solid recent empirical scientific evidence, not debatable and out of date opinions and ideological perspectives. Drug policies need to be viewed within the context of all drugs. The problems associated with the increasing use and dangers of prescription drugs have been ignored while they may be even a more serious problem.

Among the recommendations of the Commission's report are the following:

  • End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do not harm to others;
  • Encourage the experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs (especially cannabis) to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens;
  • Ensure that a variety of treatment modalities are available, including not just methadone and buprenorphine treatment, abut also the heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada;
  • Apply human rights and harm reduction principles and policies both to people who use drugs as well as those involved in the lower ends of illegal drug markets such as farmers, couriers and petty sellers;
  • Countries that continue to invest mostly in a law enforcement approach (despite the evidence) should focus their repression actions on violent organized crime and drug traffickers, in order to reduce the harms associated with the illicit drug market;
  • Offer a wide and easily accessible range of options for treatment and care for drug dependence, including substitution and heroin-assisted treatment, with special attention to those most at risk, including those in prisons and other custodial settings;
  • The United Nations system must provide leadership in the reform of global drug policy. This means promoting an effective approach based on evidence, supporting countries to develop drug policies that suit their context and meet their needs, and ensuring coherence among various UN agencies, policies and conventions.

Clearly the time has come to recognize that the War on Drugs has been a failure, and it's time to do something else that works.

Follow me on my personal blog or on Twitter.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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