The war on drugs has failed, causing devastating impact on societies and economies worldwide. Through a collection of 12 insightful essays from leading global changemakers, the recently published book, Ending the War on Drugs, highlights the need for urgent reforms to drug policy. 

In this essay, Second World War survivor, prolific author and active philanthropist, George Soros, shares his views on the failing war on drugs. From the extensive costs and negative consequences of trying to enforce an unenforceable prohibition, he discusses what changes must be made in the future. 

“It is a sad irony that aggressive drug policing and harsh drug laws are often justified by policy-makers on public health and security grounds. Basic economic theory tells us that the criminalisation of mood-altering drugs, combined with overemphasis on supply control strategies, dramatically increases the price of these drugs without significantly reducing production or consumption. Criminalisation inevitably favours market participants who are expert in violence, intimidation and corruption. Decades of relying disproportionately on prohibitions and on security and criminal justice institutions to control drugs have profoundly undermined health and security, yielding few successes and extraordinary failures.

Growing numbers of countries, states and cities are recognising that this way of doing business is neither morally nor fiscally responsible. It is long past time for new thinking on how psychoactive drugs are addressed by societies.

It is no wonder that Latin American leaders have led the call for a new debate on drugs, which was the impetus for advancing the date of the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug policy to April 2016. Their countries have borne the brunt of the crime, corruption and violence that is inevitable when organised criminal networks defend their illegal markets against heavily armed police. Individual successes in reducing drug production or trafficking in one country have merely stimulated production and trafficking elsewhere. Repression of coca production in Bolivia and Peru during the 1990s shifted production to Colombia. Law enforcement successes in Colombia shifted trafficking to Mexico. Now Central American and Caribbean nations are the victims of repressive efforts in Mexico and elsewhere. Far from experiencing greater security, these regions have instead seen spikes in violent homicide that are historically unprecedented in peacetime.

Criminalisation of drug use, minor possession and petty sale has filled prisons in many countries with non-violent offenders who are often the easiest targets for police needing to meet arrest quotas. But there is no evidence that the large-scale arrest and incarceration of such persons deters drug use or sales. Instead, the burden of criminal records on enormous numbers of people undermines opportunity and needless incarceration eats up public budgets.

Drug law enforcement has been a ready tool for contributing to entrenched discrimination against already marginalised people. The best-documented (but not the only) case is the striking racial disparity at all stages of US drug law enforcement, from stop and search to arrest, detention, sentencing and incarceration. Though rates of illegal drug use and selling are roughly equal across populations groups, African Americans and Hispanic Americans are dramatically over-represented in prisons, including for drug convictions. According to US Department of Justice statistics from 2012, 1 in 13 African American men were in federal or state prison, 1 in 36 Hispanic men and 1 in 90 white men. African American women were incarcerated at a rate 2.5 times that of white women. The consequences for families and communities of people of colour are devastating. In the US, a felony conviction in most states means being ineligible to vote or to receive government benefits or student loans.

This racial disparity is the legacy of a long history of discriminatory policies. The principal motivation for criminalising cannabis passed by US states in the first part of the twentieth century was prejudice against African Americans, Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants who were portrayed in the press as being addicted to ‘killer weed’. African Americans and Latinos use cannabis at similar rates to white people, but Latinos and especially African Americans are arrested at hugely disproportionate rates in most US jurisdictions. As for cocaine, in the US the vast majority of people arrested for crack cocaine offences are African American, even though the majority of people who use it are white. Until 2010 federal sentences for crack cocaine infractions were 100 times more severe than for powdered cocaine – used mostly by whites – though the substances are largely the same. A 2010 law modified the disparity to about 18 to 1, an improvement but still a problem and still irrational. In Canada and Australia, aboriginal people have also faced disparate treatment in drug law enforcement. Discriminatory application of criminal law on drugs is a fundamental corruption of what should be one of society’s most important tools for protecting the public.

The criminalisation of cannabis did not prevent its becoming the most widely used illegal substance in the United States and many other countries, but it certainly resulted in extensive costs and negative consequences. Law enforcement agencies today spend billions of taxpayer dollars annually trying to enforce this unenforceable prohibition. In the US the 600,000+ arrests made each year for possession of small amounts of cannabis represent more than 40 per cent of all drug arrests. One estimate suggests that Mexican drug trafficking organisations get revenue of about $2 billion a year from cannabis, almost as much as their take from cocaine. While drug traffickers may be able to adapt and compensate with other illegal activities, removing cannabis from illegal markets in the Americas would undoubtedly cut into the power of some traffickers.”

This is an excerpt from Ending the War of Drugs – available for order now.

We will be publishing a number of essays from the book over the coming months. In the meantime, read Richard Branson’s introduction