Is it time to end the war on drugs?

By Joshua Kenyon

The war on drugs, pioneered by the Nixon administration in the 1970s, is a global campaign to end the supply of illegal drugs. The US has committed aid and armed forces to foreign governments, including Latin American countries, whose proximity and abundance of drug supply has made them a primary focus for the US. Ultimately, the US encourages strict criminalisation to deter drug production and consumption. Supranational organisations such as the UN also enforce anti-drug policies, and in 1998 challenged themselves to create a “drug-free world”. Both rising global drug use and unintended consequences, however, have put the validity of this campaign in question. Is it now time to end the war on drugs?

Photo credit: Shutterstock

How has the war on drugs failed?

US global involvement in the war on drugs has often been unsuccessful. For example, since invading Afghanistan in 2001, the US has reportedly spent $8.4 billion on measures to reduce Afghanistan’s opium supply. This spending has accrued through initiatives such as the bombing campaign, “Iron Tempest”, where in one example, nine air strikes were used to destroy drug labs in Helman Province, Afghanistan. One study, however, shows the US bombing campaigns to be ineffective, and from 2002 to 2013, nationwide opium cultivation increased from 76,000 to 209,000 acres. Not only has the US failed to reduce opium supply, but its actions have also caused an array of unintended consequences. Bombing raids have killed civilians, including children, and the criminalisation of ordinary citizens who rely heavily on the opium trade for their livelihoods has been disastrous. The US disincentivised small scale production with an increase in fines, violence, and imprisonment, allowing the Taliban to acquire a larger concentration of the opium trade. This increased market share has made the opium trade a major source of revenue for the Taliban, providing between $200 to $400 million each year since 2005.

Though direct US foreign intervention has had unfavourable consequences, so too has the US influence on expanding anti-drug policies worldwide. Domestically, President Trump appointee, Jeff Sessions, has instructed prosecutors to administer the most severe sentences possible for drug-related offences. Other countries have conformed to the standards set by the US, including Brazil, where these measures have cemented President Bolsonaro’s ‘tough on crime‘ approach. The war on drugs has led to overcrowding in prisons as countries attempt to reduce drug prevalence through mass incarceration, which can create problems such as prison riots and the spread of disease. Though this includes high-level drug traffickers, it is often low-level drug dealers who are more common in the prison population.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Brazil’s notoriously stringent drug laws means they have the third highest global prison population, with 28% detained for drug-related offences. Though in 2006, Brazil passed a law to differentiate between drug users and drug traffickers, this has not been followed by state officials. Still, citizens are arrested and detained for minor drug offences, with one man sentenced to 4 years and 2 months in 2013 for possession of 15 grams ($15) of marijuana. In Brazil, the per capita prison cost is $1265 in federal penitentiaries and $474 in state facilities, which, given the amount of incarcerations, is an exorbitant cost to public spending. Policies that encourage this type of incarceration not only lead to overcrowding in prisons but are also ineffective in reducing drug use. From 2007 to 2012, for example, there was a 123% increase in the country’s drug-related incarcerations, however, cocaine consumption has more than doubled since 2005. Furthermore, Brazilian prisons are infamously labelled as “schools for crime”, where young offenders often get recruited by criminal organisations. Reform is therefore needed for drug-related offences, with a focus on rehabilitation rather than criminalisation.

What reform is needed?

The war on drugs has been inefficient at curtailing drug use. Mitigating the health costs to civilians and public services through rehabilitation should now be at the forefront of global drug policy. This approach has been taken in Portugal, which decriminalised low-level possession and consumption of all drugs in 2001. A person found in possession of illegal drugs must now appear before a “dissuasion commission”, where they may receive a fine, a treatment programme referral or other administrative sanctions. Since the enactment of this policy, criminal court proceedings for drug-related charges has decreased by 60%, whilst the number of people receiving drug-related treatment has increased by 60%, showing a move towards treating drug use as a health problem rather than a crime problem. From 2001 to 2012, new cases of HIV and AIDS in Portugal dropped by 94.5% and 93.3% respectively, partly because of an increase in access to sterile syringes. Most importantly, drug use has not risen, compared to the US focus on criminal prosecution of drug possession that has often proved ineffective at deterring drug use. The rest of the world should learn from this alternative approach to drug policy that has seen a plethora of health and societal benefits.

Joshua is an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield studying Economics, and has interests in economic development.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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