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Why We Need To End "The War on Drugs"

Filling prisons with drug users has done nothing to curb the multi-billion dolla

The War on Drugs has been a failure. It cannot be won. It's time that leaders develop new thinking and new policies about the issue of illegal drugs.

Filling prisons with drug users has done nothing to curb the multi-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. It 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.

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; they 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. Government leaders largely ignored the reports.

Richard Davenport-Hines, in his book, The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics, 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. 

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, 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 report 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 U.N. 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 former Mexican President Calderon declared war on drugs, using his military to attack the drug cartels. The death toll increased, as has 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.

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.

Let’s take a look at some hard facts about the War On Drugs:

  • If the global drug trade were a country, it would have one of the top 20 economies in the world. In 2005, the United Nations estimated the global illegal drug trade is worth more than $320 billion. It also estimates there are 230 million illegal drug users in the world, yet 90% of them are not classified as problematic.
  • In the United States, if illegal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco, they would yield $46.7 billion in tax revenue. A Cato study says legalizing drugs would save the U.S. about $41 billion a year in enforcing the drug laws;
  • In the U.S., the average price of heroin, cocaine and cannabis decreased by at least 80% between 1990 and 2007, while average purity increased by 60%, 11% and 161% respectively. Similar trends were seen in Europe over the same period, while in Australia the price of cocaine, heroin and cannabis fell by 14% to 49% between 2000 and 2010;
  • In 2011, 50.8 percent of Federal inmates were incarcerated for drug offenses.  This compares to just 4.2 percent for robbery, 2.7 percent for homicide/assault/kidnapping, and 4.7 percent for sex offenses. In fact, since the mid-1990s, violent crimes (murder, rape and sexual assault, robbery, and assault and burglary) have steadily declined.  What has skyrocketed is arrests for drug offenses;
  • One out of every 100 American adults is behind bars in jail or prison, and the U.S. houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners despite having less than five percent of the world’s total population;
  • The Department of Justice says that the illegal drug market in the U.S. is dominated by 900,000 criminally active gang members affiliated with 20,000 street gangs in more than 2,500 cities; and that Mexican drug cartels now directly control illegal drug markets in at least 230 American cities;
  • Al Qaida and nearly half of all U.S. State Department-listed Foreign Terrorist Organizations have ties to the illegal drug trade. For example, the Taliban and Afghan warlords collect nearly half a billion dollars a year from illicit drug farming, production and trafficking, while the FARC in Colombia finances its activities with $300 million a year in illegal drug sales;
  • National drug control spending on harsh enforcement strategies grew by 69.7 percent over the past nine years, while spending on treatment and prevention only grew by 13.9 percent;
  • Three out of four American voters say the “war on drugs” is a failure. In a survey by the National Association of Chiefs of Police, 82 % of police chiefs and sheriffs said that the War on Drugs has not been successful in reducing drug use;
  • In the U.S.’s overburdened criminal justice system due to the volume of drug offenses, nearly four of ten murders, six of ten rapes and nine of ten burglaries go unsolved;
  • Despite being the birthplace of the global War on Drugs and having some of the harshest drug penalties, the U.S. has the highest marijuana and cocaine use rates in the world.

General John F. Kelly, the former head of the U.S. Southern Command, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, reported the following:

  • The spread of criminal networks is having a corrosive effect on the integrity of democratic institutions and the stability of several of our partner nations. Without black-market profits, criminal drug networks would almost certainly shrink;
  • Transnational criminal organizations threaten citizen security, undermine basic human rights, cripple rule of law through corruption, erode good governance, and hinder economic development. Again, the ability of drug cartels to bribe officials, violate human rights, and cripple the rule of law would be undermined if they suddenly lost their ability to profit from drugs on the black market;
  • Illicit trafficking poses a direct threat to our nation’s public health, safety, and border security. Criminal elements make use of the multitude of illicit pathways in our hemisphere to smuggle drugs, contraband, and even humans directly into the United States. Without a black market in narcotics, smuggling operations would be less sophisticated and the money flowing to smugglers would decrease.

A  study published in the British Medical Journal finds the prices of illegal drugs have generally declined while their purity has increased over the past twenty years, raising questions about the effectiveness of international law enforcement efforts to reduce drug supply. Dr. Evan Wood, Scientific Chair of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy and Canada Research Chair in Inner City Medicine at the University of British Columbia says: “We should look to implement policies that place community health and safety at the forefront of our efforts, and consider drug use a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. With the recognition that efforts to reduce drug supply are unlikely to be successful, there is a clear need to scale up addiction treatment and other strategies that can effectively reduce drug-related harm.”

It’s time policy makers looked seriously at the overwhelming evidence that the War On Drugs has failed; we need to take a different path for this very destructive social and economic issue.


U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. (September 2010). Crime in the United States, 2009. Table 29. http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/arrests/index.html

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (September 2010). Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Tables G.1 & G.2. http://oas.samhsa.gov/NSDUH/2k9NSDUH/2k9ResultsApps.htm#AppG

Pew Center on the States. (February 2008). One in 100: Behind Bars In America 2008. p. 7. http://stage.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/One%20in%20100.pdf

Los Angeles Times. (August 2010). Mexico Under Siege: The Drug War At Our Doorstep. http://projects.latimes.com/mexico-drug-war/

U.S. Department of Justice. National Drug Intelligence Center. (February 2010). National Drug Threat Assessment 2010. p. 57, Map A3. http://www.justice.gov/ndic/pubs38/38661/38661p.pdf

U.S. Department of State. Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. (March 2002). International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. http://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2001/rpt/8475.htm

Miron, Jeffrey. (September 2010). The Budgetary Impact of Ending Drug Prohibition. http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=12169

Zogby International. (October 2008). Zogby/Inter-American Dialogue Survey: Public Views Clash with U.S. Policy on Cuba, Immigration, and Drugs. http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.cfm?ID=1568

National Association of Chiefs of Police. (2005). 18th Annual National Survey Results of Police Chiefs & Sheriffs. http://www.aphf.org/surveyresults.pdf

U.S. Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation. (September 2010). Crime in the United States, 2009. Table 43. http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/data/table_43.html

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs. (March 2009). Hearing, “Law Enforcement Responses to Mexican Drug Cartels.” http://judiciary.senate.gov/hearings/hearing.cfm?id=3718

Degenhardt L, Chiu W-T, Sampson N, Kessler RC, Anthony JC, et al. (July 2008). Toward a Global View of Alcohol, Tobacco, Cannabis, and Cocaine Use: Findings from the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. PLoS Medicine. http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050141

Global Commision on Drugs: http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/wp-content/themes/gcdp_v1/...


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


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