We should end our disastrous war on drugs

The time has come to think again and make a turn towards rationality, writes Martin Wolf
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The global war on drugs has failed. Readers should not take my word for this. It is the opening sentence of a report on the failures of prohibition from an independent Global Commission on Drug Policy. What makes this report astonishing is not its content, now widely accepted among disinterested people, but who is associated with it.

Among signatories are George Shultz, former US secretary of state, Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo, former president of Mexico and Javier Solana, former European Union high representative for foreign and security policy. Salute them all. They are honourable people prepared to state that the policy on which the world has engaged for decades, at the behest of the US, is a disaster.

While failing to reduce the ills of drug use at which it is addressed, it has created massive “collateral damage”: the spread of avoidable diseases; use of drugs in dangerous forms; mass criminalisation and incarceration; a gigantic waste of public resources; corruption; creation of a cross-border network of organised crime; and the subversion of states. Mexico is perhaps the most important contemporary victim. It is a war with myriad innocent victims.

The argument for prohibition is that it would lead to an ever-diminishing market in controlled drugs. In practice, the opposite has happened: in the 10 years to 2008, according to the UN, the worldwide number of users of opiates has risen by 34.5 per cent, of cocaine by 27 per cent and of cannabis by 8.5 per cent. If this is a successful policy, what would a failed one look like?

The thrust of the report is that the challenges associated with the use and abuse of drugs – a pervasive feature of human societies – should be approached pragmatically, as a problem in public health, not moralistically, as a problem of crime.

The report offers powerful specific recommendations: have an open debate on the failure of current policy; replace the criminalisation and punishment of users with evidence-based treatment; encourage experimentation with a regulated legal supply of less harmful drugs, such as cannabis, and decriminalisation of use, along with supply via prescription, of more harmful drugs such as heroin; stop measuring the number of people in prison or drugs seized and focus on outcomes, such as the levels of drug dependence, violence, disease and death by overdose; challenge the misconceptions fed by panic-mongers; shift the focus of the criminal justice system toward violent organised crime; develop alternatives to incarceration for small-scale and first-time drug dealers; and, above all, focus on what actually works.

None of this is new. But from such a group it is surely revolutionary.

Some of the points are particularly compelling. Consider the huge costs of criminalisation, for example. In the US, the number of people in prisons has risen from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3m today, the highest rate of incarceration in the world, overwhelmingly because of the war on drugs. One in 31 US adults is now in jail, on probation or on parole. Though African Americans are just 14 per cent of regular drug users, they account for 37 per cent of drug arrests and 56 per cent of those in prison. It is amazing that more Americans do not find this scandalous. However other countries have followed a similar route, including the UK, with devastating consequences. In some countries, minor drug suppliers are even executed, which is truly horrifying.

Again, some of the experiments with harm-reduction approaches have been remarkably successful. The report notes, for example, that the Swiss heroin substitution approach, which targeted hard-core users, has substantially reduced consumption and the number of new addicts. It has also secured a 90 per cent reduction in property crimes by those participating in the programme. Countries such as the UK, Switzerland, Germany and Australia, with active needle-exchange programmes, have about a fifth of the US levels of HIV-prevalence among those who inject drugs.

In July 2001, Portugal became the first European country to decriminalise use and possession (as opposed to supply) of all illegal drugs. Since then, use has risen slightly, but fully in line with the increase in other similar countries. “Within this general trend,” says the report, “there has also been a specific decline in the use of heroin, which was in 2001 the main concern of the Portuguese government.”

Yet another important point is the irrationality of the categorisation of drugs. Expert ranking of the harmfulness of drugs puts alcohol, for example, well above many illegal substances, such as cannabis.

The report brings out some of the dire unintended consequences of the drugs war. One is the scale of the black market that now exists. Another is the creation of a vested interest in the maintenance of what we must call “the drugs suppression industry”. Yet another is the “geographical displacement”, as suppression of supply in one place leads to its almost inevitable shift to somewhere else. And another again is “substance displacement”, as consumers shift from one drug to another in response to changes in supply. All this is the inevitable consequence of efforts to suppress powerful market forces. In addition, there are dire social results from taking a punitive approach to the behaviour of users who have too often been the victims of abuse, suffer from mental illness, or come from marginalised social groups.

The biggest conclusion I draw from this report is that policies made in the grip of moral panic and punitive fervour are bound to be a catastrophe. So it has proved in this case: here we have a policy that has failed to achieve its main aims, but has imposed huge collateral costs.

The report calls for an urgent shift in approach, led, if possible, by the UN system. That is, alas, unlikely. But individual countries and groups of countries should shrug off the efforts of the US to export its punitive approach to the rest of the world and think for themselves, instead. Humanity does not have to be the victim of these savage efforts to prevent drug abuse. The time has come to think again. If we are brave, the publication of this report could mark a turn towards rationality.

The writer is the chief economics commentator of the Financial Times

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.

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