The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

War on Drugs

The Global War on Drugs has Failed.

The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which launched the global war on  drugs 50 years ago, was expected to eliminate the production, supply and use of controlled drugs and so to usher in a drug-free world. 50 years on, the use of controlled drugs continues to rise, criminal cartels enjoy unprecedented profits, drugs-police and drugs-agencies have consumed unquantifiable amounts of taxpayers’ money, 10 million people are in jail worldwide for drug-related offences, civil liberties have been widely infringed and thousands die in the drug war each year. The drug-free world so confidently predicted by supporters of the 1961 Single Convention is further than ever from realization.

This campaign to eliminate drug use is called the ‘War on Drugs’, but it is actually a war on drug users and produces unimaginable profits for criminal cartels, making the drugs trade the third largest market in the world, valued at $300-400 billion by the UN[1].   Attempts to reduce the supply of narcotics are largely ineffective, and cause serious societal and environmental damage.  Eradication campaigns using aerial-spraying of high-strength pesticides (such as Plan Colombia) devastate extensive areas of forest and fertile land, kill crops and destroy indigenous livelihoods.

The illegal drug trade is regarded as the biggest threat to security, stability and civil cohesion in many countries throughout the world, especially Latin America and the Caribbean[2].  The production, trafficking and sale of illicit drugs are closely linked to the high levels of violence and endemic corruption. The illegal drug market thereby directly undermines the state, and the War on Drugs requires developing countries to allocate scarce resources to policing a war started outside their borders – money that could be invested in education or development.

In Mexico over 47000 people have died since President Felipe Calderón set the army against the cartels[3]. Felipe Calderón has been revealed to have privately admitted to UK deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that his country’s attempt to crush drug barons by military force had failed, claiming 60,000 lives: ”He said to me: ‘It’s not working. We can’t win against these odds.’”[4]

The prohibitionist approach to drugs has also resulted in widespread human rights violations [5]. For example, in the US black males, are disproportionately targeted by police using racial profiling even though they are no more likely to be drug users than white people. More than one third of the 25.4 million Americans who have been arrested on drug charges since 1980 were black. Black men are 13 times more likely to be sent to US state prisons, and 57 times more likely to be sent to federal prisons for drug offences than white men[6].

While the demand from the user-countries persists, there is no possibility of stopping the drug trade, as the profits are too great.  Indeed, there is no chance of eradicating drugs and their use, so we must face this reality and develop new, more practical policies.

[1]UN 2005 World Drug Report estimated $320 billion (NB data mostly based on 2003, market has only grown since so would likely be above these figures)

[2]US Congressional Research Service commissioned report: Latin America and the Caribbean: Illicit Drug Trafficking and U.S. Counterdrug Programs

[3]BBC World January 2012: Mexico drug war deaths over five years now total 47,515 via Mexican government census data

[4]Guardian 14th December ‘Nick Clegg calls for reform of drug laws’

[5]Beckley Foundation report: Recalibrating the regime: The need for a human rights-based approach to international drug policy

[6]Race and the Drug War Fact sheet, Drug Policy Alliance