Governments across the world have invested in the war on drugs for decades. The complete eradication of drug crops and prohibition of their consumption has been the only goal. In this process, terrible pain and suffering has been inflicted around the world in the name of pursuing the fantasy of a drug-free world.

The United Nations has been the primary international mechanism upholding the prohibitionist approach for the past several decades, but this month they are convening a Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) in New York – the first such worldwide meeting since 1998. While many such gatherings have rubber stamped the status quo, the drugs UNGASS is an opportunity to reconsider current policy and to give space to voices who urge a new approach that prioritises health, social inclusion, development and human rights over interdiction, prohibition and punishment. 

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The clamour for change is growing louder, from former heads of state in South America and Western Europe to rural farmers in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. Rather than demanding drug crops be destroyed, attempts are being made to manage production. Instead of insisting people quit using drugs entirely, ways are being sought to reduce the harm drugs can cause. In place of using criminal justice as an ineffective deterrent, information and social support is offered.

In the first of three blogs, we look at the unintended consequences – the true costs – of the war on drugs. The second will examine policy changes in low-income countries of the Global South. While the third will discuss how a people-first approach would benefit citizens in the high-income countries of the Global North – counties that have been the primary architects and funders of the war on drugs. 

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The war on drugs is an engine of social injustice that tends to disproportionality victimise and punish members of the most vulnerable groups in society. Heavy-handed efforts to eradicate drug crops have caused major population displacements in countries like Burma and Laos and, in the case of Colombia, the displacement of up to five million people, or 15 per cent of the population. Counter narcotics efforts are leading to environmental destruction in some of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet.

The use of powerful herbicides in eradication efforts is the cause of land and water pollution and many health problems. As a result, growers of crops declared illicit are chased from their farms, and push further into virgin forest to continue cultivation. This in turn can lead to yet more displacement as indigenous people are violently harried from their land. A similar process occurs when traffickers relocate from one jurisdiction to another to evade authorities. 

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Some of the easiest targets for law enforcement are low-level drug carriers who are often women used by the cartels that consider them cheap and expendable. As a result, the world’s jails are filling up with women serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses – in Latin America they make up fully 70 per cent of the female prison population.      

Children and young people are also disproportionately harmed by containment efforts, as are people involuntarily detained in the name of “treatment” in abusive facilities, presenting themselves as drug treatment providers. Untold thousands are jailed for minor drug offenses and an unknown number are executed for smuggling, often in countries where the legal system offers very limited protections. Many of those convicted and executed are desperately poor or mentally ill. 

It is hard to imagine a segment of society more in need of compassion than young children suffering in agony of pain, people suffering from chronic diseases or in need of palliative care. Yet the war on drugs has severely curtailed access to desperately needed pain medicine, with 75 per cent of the world’s population, mostly in low-income countries, without access to any pain-reliving opioids.

These assaults on human rights are a direct result of prioritising a criminal justice approach to drug control and deprioritising health services, social support, and community and rural development. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 47,000 Americans died from drug overdose in 2014, yet as a result of abstinence only approaches and moral judgement against drug users, the availability of life-saving naloxone, harm reduction, and evidence-based treatment, is severely curtailed. 

And to look at the bottom line, it is estimated that world governments spend $100 billion a year combatting drugs. Yet for all that expenditure, there are few success stories. Instead, a black market in drugs that is at least three times this size continues to thrive. Profits from this black market go on to finance corruption, violence and conflict that is ravaging countries in Central and South America, Burma, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

After decades of a futile war on drugs, with little positive to show for it and much destruction in its wake, it is time to explore alternative approaches. We should not continue with the unrealistic endeavor of a drug free world, but begin to approach drug production, trafficking and use as problems to be managed with regulated markets, health services, social support, and development. By changing the focus from creating a drug free world to creating a world managing drug use, we can reduce the negative consequences of poorly designed drug policies and take control of the black market. 

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