Global spending on drug law enforcement currently exceeds $100 billion per annum – roughly the equivalent of the total amount spent on foreign aid worldwide. However, these huge investments have done nothing to reduce drug production, supply and use. Instead, they have served as seed funding for a vast criminal industry with an estimated annual turnover of $320 billion, eager to meet a growing worldwide demand for illicit drugs. Despite all the resources spent by governments, the global drugs trade is now entirely controlled by violent criminal organisations – including terrorists – that have little concern for the consequences of their actions.
Along the entire supply chain, the War on Drugs has left a trail of destruction and death, violence and insecurity. In Mexico, conservative estimates put the number of people killed in drug-related violence in recent years at more than 100,000; swathes of South and Central America are experiencing unprecedented levels of crime; Afghanistan is a ruined state producing 90 per cent of the world’s heroin; and parts of West Africa are so mired in corruption and trafficking that they have virtually no state functions remaining.
How did things go so badly wrong? The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs first laid down the concept that drugs – and therefore the people who used, produced or sold them – constituted a threat to humankind. This approach was re-emphasised in 1971 by US President Richard Nixon, when he famously declared a War on Drugs. His idea to ‘stem the tide of drug abuse’ in the US and beyond by vigorously fighting supply and criminalising demand caught on and spread like wildfire, and by the end of the 1970s most of the world’s governments had adopted the same stance. A further convention against trafficking in 1988 consolidated the international framework based on strict law enforcement, zero tolerance and the vision of a drug-free world. More than four decades on, it has become increasingly clear that this war has been a catastrophic failure. Worse still, the War on Drugs turned out to be a war on people, with dramatic and devastating economic, human and social costs from Bogotá to Brixton, and from Kabul to Kingston.
In many countries the death penalty continues to take its toll, and drugs have played a huge role in the rise of mass incarceration. In the US alone, over 1.5 million people were arrested in 2014 on non-violent drug charges, 83 per cent of them solely for possession. Globally, more than one in five people sent to prison are there for drug offences, with minorities and the poor being hit the hardest. Prohibition has also increased the health risks associated with all drug use. Making drugs illegal pushes the market towards riskier, more potent (and therefore more profitable) products, leads to the use of contaminated drugs of unknown strength, encourages high-risk-using behaviours, pushes consumption into unsafe environments and forces people who use drugs to come into contact with a potentially violent criminal underworld.
It’s high time we stop pretending we have any control over drugs. The only way to wrest back control is to end the drug war, take the markets back from criminal networks and put governments in charge, so that drug production, supply and use can be regulated via doctors, pharmacists and licensed retailers. The more dangerous a drug is, the more important that it is properly controlled by the government. Only then can there be a role for legitimate businesses, working as they do now within the legal medicine industry, following safe, accountable systems under the rule of law.
As the UN General Assembly gears up for the first global drug policy debate in 18 years in April 2016, in preparation for developing a new 10-year international drugs strategy, we need champions, advocates and legislators to step forward and demand policies rooted in evidence and common sense. I encourage you to contact your political representatives, demonstrate and speak out; because this might be the most important thing you ever do to make the world a better, safer place.
This is an excerpt from Ending the War of Drugs – available for order now.