The War on Drugs Has Failed!

Soft Secrets
13 Aug 2011

The Global Commission on Drug Policy had published an article recognizing the failure of the War on Drugs and offering a set of principles and recommendations to efficiently tackle the issue.

Since the last hundred years, the international approach to drugs has been one of intolerance, harsh repression and propaganda - as well as a recognized waste of taxpayers' hard earned cash. Most of us with a basic understanding of market and social dynamics have known that it was an approach bound to fail. History has shown this on numerous accounts. However, governments worldwide have so far refused to adjust their approach, but for a very few pioneers. In the first week of June however, it was surprising to read that the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a part of the United Nations, had published an article recognizing the failure of the War on Drugs and offering a set of principles and recommendations to efficiently tackle the issue.< When the decision was made to start an official war against the use of drugs back in the early 20th century, everyone thought it would be for the best. Mind you, waves of propaganda and misinformation were very efficient in convincing the citizens of the risks these drugs brought to the established order and moral values of the new world. The war on Cannabis is the perfect example. Not only was this drug considered to be responsible for the moral depravity spreading through the US via foreign immigrants; it also affected white people by encouraging them to abandon their moral values. More exactly, it was also accused of causing depravity in white women who, after having consumed the drug, would start listening to the Devil's music - which we now call 'Jazz', by the way - and to be promiscuous with black men. Substances leading to violence, depression, hard-drug use, the death of brain cells and mental disorders: these are some of the many scare tactics used over the decades to convince people of the dangers of drug-use, reinforcing the apparent need to combat it by any means possible... ANY means possible. In 2010, The Financial Times estimated that the War on Drugs had far-surpassed the trillion-dollar mark, with budgets surpassing $40B a year in America alone. Despite this, governments continue to invest increasing amounts of funds into a losing battle. If we are to look at relevant historical references, it is easy to spot the correlation between prohibition, increased use, insecurity, ill health and criminality: the alcohol prohibition that took place in the 1920s. The results of prohibition remain the same today as they were then. In their new report, the Global Commission on Drug Policy published data claiming that rather than dropping, Cannabis, cocaine and opiate use have all increased over a ten year period (1998-2008) with a respective increase of 8.5%, 27% and 34.5%. With no regulation whatsoever, consumers also have to deal with insecurity in obtaining the drug, high prices and no quality control - which can potentially lead to disastrous health issues. And who pays the price for all this? One simple answer: you and me, the taxpayers. With no other source of income, the government has to use taxation to finance its inefficient war. So, to sum up, taxpayers pay the government to ultimately help the very criminals it claims to fight against. This situation is one of which many are aware: politicians, economists, sociologists - as well as the criminals involved. And yet nothing has really changed since the War on Drugs first started. A couple of countries decided upon new approaches, broadly generating an uproar from neighboring nations and international press. To give a concrete example, on the first of July, 2001, Portugal decriminalized the use of drugs. While drug use and possession are still legally prohibited, violations of those prohibitions are considered as administrative violations, not criminal offenses. Having heard of this decision, neighboring countries were quick to paint gloomy pictures of the country's future, claiming it would see increased drug use amongst youth and become a drug user's haven. Even though Portugal was able to show positive results over the last ten years, other countries still stubbornly deny that a new approach is needed.

Enter the Global Commission on Drug Policy

Together with a group of illustrious commissioners (amongst whom were George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece; Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico; Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve and Economic Recovery Board and Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations), the Global Commission on Drug Policy has recognized the need to re-evaluate the international approach to drug use and production. In a publication released in the beginning of June 2011, the Commission has officially recognized the utter failure of the War on Drugs - as well as the devastating consequences it has had on society and its members. Their conclusions are basic and most are obvious, given a bit of thought: to 'End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others.' Also, to: 'encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation... especially [with regards] to Cannabis' and 'offer health and treatment services to those in need.' An ultimate goal is 'to rethink the approach now in place with regards to people involved in the lower end of the illegal drug markets, to invest in drug prevention and drug education, to focus repressive actions on violent criminal organizations[;] but first and foremost to begin the transformation of the "global drug prohibition regime" by replacing current measures with responsible policies and strategies built on facts and not on ideology and political convenience.'

The Measure Themselves:

In order to tackle this vast task, the Commission has agreed upon a list of four principles and eleven recommendations they hope can help rectify the situation. Based on discussion, plus medical-, social- and political experiments done internationally, the conclusions are as follows:

The Principles:

1. Base drug policies on solid evidence. 2. Base drug policies on human rights and public health principles. 3. Policies should be a global, shared responsibility, taking diverse political, social and cultural realities into consideration. 4. Drug policies must be pursued in a comprehensive way, involving all relevant parties (families, health specialists, law enforcement etc.) This seems a very commendable set of principles, which can easily be applied given the extensive research done internationally by recognized authorities. There are exceptions though, because of certain countries which, even today, forbid research into certain drugs. More than that, decades' worth of propaganda will have to be addressed before any truly unbiased conclusion can be reached. To this end, all concerned parties (families, the health sector, society's leaders) will actively need to take part in order to start rectifying generations' worth of misinformation.

The Recommendations:

1. Pursue an open debate and break through the taboo surrounding drugs. 2. Stop considering drug users criminals and offer them health and treatment services to those in need. 3. Encourage experimentation with regulation models designed to undermine organized crime and benefit the health and security of end users. 4. Establish better methods to measure the progress. 5. Challenge misconceptions about drug users, the drugs market, drug use in itself and drug dependency. 6. Countries continuing to invest heavily in law enforcement should focus on organized crime and traffickers, thereby reducing the harms linked to the underground market. 7. Develop new sentences for first-time/small-scale dealers. 8. Invest more in evidence-based prevention, with a special focus on youth. 9. Offer a wide and easily accessible range of options for treatment of drug dependence. 10. The UN must provide leadership in global drug policy reform. 11. The War on Drugs has failed. We must act now! A very good first step. And indeed, considering the problem rationally (not emotionally) and learning from past mistakes is the key to moving things forward. It is essential to everything we do in life. You try an approach, judge the results and, if lacking, adapt it - modify it to suit your needs. In this case, it is time for the relevant institutions to face the facts. Judging the success of the War on Drugs by the number of arrests made, the number of drugs intercepted, is not in any way a measure of success - especially when the consumption of said drug continues to rise. It is time for us to face the issue head-on and adapt. As many have said before, drug use will never cease, so long as a curious mind exists.

To be Perfected...

Stimulating governments to experiment with regulation and decriminalization - as countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal have done - has proven that a less repressive approach leads not only to lower drug use but also to less health issues linked to their consumption. Through open discussion and effective education, we can not only ensure that the misconceptions are dispersed, but also give everyone the information necessary for them to be able to make an educated decision with regards to drug use. This would thereby limit drug use linked to external influences such as peer pressure, socio-economic status or, naturally, the ‘forbidden fruit' effect, allowing institutions to focus on drug use linked to larger social issues (childhood trauma, neglect, living conditions, etc.) which truly do need attention. This is why extensive efforts must be made to provide adequate resources for prevention - with a focus on the ‘sensitive' social groups such as youths - as well as the developing of easy access to treatment for the people suffering from drug dependencies. There are a couple of notions that appear to be lacking, however (i.e. points six and seven). If one looks at the current structure of drug trade/use, it can be summarized in a pyramidal structure with the end-user placed at the top; small scale dealers come next, followed by larger scale dealers and organized crime forming the wide base. It is quite an accurate representation of the control each group has on the market. This dynamic will not change unless the legality of drug use and production in itself is revised. Until this is done, the control of the drug market and the funds it generates will remain as they are. How will a continually repressive approach to dealers help in curbing consumption? Instead, we should discuss the possible creation of licenses allowing the production of these drugs. Together with the necessary regulations and quality controls this could create a more secure, trustworthy means of distribution, create jobs and economic income and reduce health risks (with regard to altered substances), while also eliminating the need for an illegal market in one fell swoop.


Isn't it amusing that these facts - which have been preached by activists for years - are finally being acknowledged now that a group of governmental celebrities is repeating them? Regardless, there is no denying that, despite certain shortcomings, this publication has created waves throughout international press and has really opened up the debate about our approach to drugs worldwide. The necessary steps towards rectifying the situation will contain big challenges. Not only will economic interests shift - imagine what will happen to the paper-, textile-, petrochemical- and construction industries the day hemp is fully legalized - but entire new markets will appear. This will create new jobs, as well as revenues that the government can then tax to finance rehabilitation centers, prevention, educational initiatives and so forth. However, we must also take other social repercussions into account. Imagine how many people profit from the War on Drugs: the prison industry, security firms, law enforcement, pharmaceutical companies, etc. The day our approach to drugs evolves, they could potentially find themselves without employment. It is therefore important to be critical, to keep all these facts in mind and to discuss the issue in its entirety to guarantee as smooth a transition as we can. Needless to say we'll be doing our part. What about you? For more information on the report, check online at:
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