Drug prohibition has failed – time to support, not punish

Richard Branson in a white t-shirt holding up a sign reading "Support Don't Punish"
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Published on 27 June 2022

In the past, International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking (June 26) has often been an opportunity for proponents of the failed war on drugs to celebrate arrests and showcase vast amounts of drugs seized from cartels and their traffickers – as if any of these actions had any meaningful impact on supply and demand in a global illicit trade estimated to turn over more than $300 billion annually. They don’t.

More than 50 years after US President Nixon turned his attention to narcotics and declared drug use “public enemy number one”, there is a greater market for illicit drugs than at any previous point in human history.

I am reminded of the words of my friend Juan Manuel Santos, the former President of Colombia and Nobel Peace Laureate. He recently described how he entered his country’s highest office as a drug warrior, favouring heavy-handed enforcement and aggressive crop eradication, and signing more extradition warrants for drug traffickers than any of his predecessors. As the toll of this all-out war on drugs and people continued to rise, he came to realise that it engendered a cycle of violence that tore Colombia apart, but didn’t do anything to curb the power of the cartels or the supply of drugs. Colombia is still the world’s leading producer of cocaine, and the volume of production is higher than it ever was. “Prohibition has failed,” President Santos says looking back at Colombia’s experience, but he also concedes that his later efforts to change course and propose a different model came at a very high political and personal cost. As it turns out, perpetuating the war on drugs is a powerful and sadly popular political tool falsely signalling “tough-on-crime” credentials that come in handy in election cycles everywhere - even if there are signs that the potency of this rhetoric is finally waning. In reality, an endless war on drugs is devastating policy that costs countless lives and wastes enormous resources. 

For more than a decade now, I have been a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which advocates for an end to the war on drugs and has identified pathways to drug policies that have been proven to work. My fellow Commissioners and I, including President Santos, agree that the world needs approaches that put people’s health and safety first; ensure access to essential medicines and pain control; end the criminalisation and subsequent mass incarceration of people who use drugs; refocus law enforcement on drug trafficking and organised crime; and finally begin to legally regulate drug markets so that governments are put in control, not cartels.

I often hear those defending prohibition say that decriminalisation and regulation would lead to a free-for-all, with drugs sold at every street corner. The truth is that the status quo is the real free-for-all, as unregulated drugs of unknown provenience and potency are all around us, everywhere. And all profits are raked in by criminal organisations with no regard for the human toll. That’s the reality of prohibition.

But not all is lost. Courageous policy makers, public health experts, civil society groups, and law enforcement officials have been the driving forces of change in many countries and regions of the world. Following the example set by Uruguay, Canada and several US states, many more jurisdictions, now on every continent, are on a path toward decriminalisation and regulation of cannabis for both medical and non-medical uses. They include Mexico, South Africa, and the growing wave of European reforms already encompassing Malta, Germany, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. Just a few days ago, Thailand’s government legalised the cultivation and consumption of cannabis – a radical shift in a region of the world that is known for its draconian, yet hardly evidence-based drug laws. I also applaud Malaysia’s recent decision to end the mandatory death penalty for a range of offences, including drug trafficking, which will have a very positive impact on the country’s criminal justice system.

On the harm reduction front, I am encouraged by recent developments in British Columbia (Canada) and Australia’s Capital Territory (Canberra) to decriminalise the possession of small amounts of all drugs, including cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. This will not only help ease the burden on law enforcement, it will also remove stigma and free resources to allow those who really need support to seek and find it.

And as I’ve long been a proponent of medically supervised overdose prevention centres, I am heartened to see others follow the example of European countries, Australia, and Canada where such facilities have proven to save many lives for years. New York City has opened two such centres recently, and I hope more countries, including the UK, will adopt this proven approach to tackling the growing rates of drug fatalities.

All these examples show that policy rooted in scientific evidence and conscious of human rights and social justice is the way to go, not just for national governments, but also for the UN bodies tasked with upholding a drug control framework that feels terribly out of step with the reality of drug use and the real challenges of the illicit drug trade. Highlighting and celebrating positive change on the ground whilst pushing for policy change at the top is our best hope to end the war on drugs once and for all. It's time to end prohibition. It’s time to support, not punish.