The implementation of the war on drugs has generated widespread negative consequences for societies in producer, transit and consumer countries. And those who benefit from the war on drugs aren’t only state prisons.
Prohibition does not just affect those that consume drugs but everyone from production upwards with significant, often unintended, international consequences.
Beheadings, massacres, corrupt politicians, bombings, countless deaths of innocents caught in the cross fire; it is difficult to overemphasise the damage that the War on Drugs has done. The costs and damage related to the production and trade of illegal drugs, together with the collateral damage related to the War on Drugs and anti-drug efforts now extends throughout the Western Hemisphere. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, almost each and every nation is heavily affected by the production, trafficking or consumption of drugs and the related violent criminal activity that accompanies them.
The issues of violence, instability, the undermining of human rights, democracy and development that the War on Drugs has caused are not just present throughout the Americas. Countries in Africa and Asia increasingly experience these negative and unintended consequences of global prohibition. Until Washington re-evaluates its approach to drug policy, these problems will continue and most likely worsen.
Unintended Consequences of the ‘War on Drugs’
Antonio Maria Costa is the former Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. He summarized the unintended consequences as falling into five broad categories:
1. The growth of a ‘huge criminal black market’, financed by the risk-escalated profits of supplying international demand for illicit drugs. The effects of this illegal trade on societies cannot be ignored: for example, over the past ten years, about 300,000 refugees travelled from Columbia to the Andes, escaping from the violence caused by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug lords .
2. Extensive policy displacement, the result of using scarce resources to fund a vast law enforcement effort intended to address this criminal market. Indeed, over $100 billion is spent globally each year on enforcing the war on drugs .
3. Geographical displacement, often known as ‘the balloon effect’, whereby drug production shifts location to avoid the attentions of law enforcement. Marijuana in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which migrated to Cauca, is an often cited example. In the late 1990s coca was largely eradicated in Peru and Bolivia, only to be replaced by new crops in Colombia .
4. Substance displacement, or the movement of consumers to new substances when their previous drug of choice becomes difficult to obtain, for instance through law enforcement pressure. As availability of one drug is mitigated through enforcement, consumers and suppliers flock to alternate drugs that are more accessible.
5. The perception and treatment of drug users, who are stigmatized, marginalized and excluded. The current drug laws turn some addicts — who need treatment — into criminals. A much more effective approach would be regarding this as a health problem – as it is done in Portugal.
The Beneficiaries of the ‘War on Drugs’
In an op-ed to the LA Times Saturday, attorney David Fleming and Judge James P. Gray make the observation that only law enforcement authorities and criminals have benefited from the $2.5 trillion spent fighting drug trafficking. They identify six groups of people that benefit from the war on drugs:
1. Drug cartels who are making billions of tax free dollars; the black market is said to be worth more than $322 billion .
2. Street gangs who sell illegal drugs. The problem is that the money often causes violence amongst gangs– something hardly surprising, since it is an inherent characteristic of black markets.
3. Law enforcement officers and the huge agencies that have been developed to fight (and profit from) the war on drugs; the President’s Fiscal Year 2011 Nation requests $15.5 billion to reduce drug use in the United States. And, according to DrugSense, arrests for drug law violations this year are expected to exceed the 1,663,582 arrests of 2009.
“Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade are critical problems in Latin America today. Confronted with a situation that is growing worse by the day, it is imperative, to rectify the “war on drugs” strategy pursued in the region over the past 30 years. Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are further than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs. A realistic evaluation indicates that:
- Latin America remains the major global exporter of cocaine and cannabis, has become a growing producer of opium and heroin, and is developing the capacity to produce synthetic drugs;
- The Levels of drug consumption continue to grow in Latin America whilst there is a tendency toward stabilization in North America and Europe.
The in-depth revision of current drug policies is even more urgent in Latin America in light of their enormous human and social costs and threats to democratic institutions.
Over the past decades we have witnessed:
- A rise in organized crime caused both by the international narcotics trade and by the growing control exercised by criminal groups over domestic markets and territories;
- A growth in unacceptable levels of drug-related violence affecting the whole of society and, in particular, the poor and the young;
- The criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime, as well as the proliferation of the linkages between them, as reflected in the infiltration of democratic institutions by organized crime;
- The corruption of public servants, the judicial system, governments, the political system and, especially the police forces in charge of enforcing law and order.”
–The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy
4. Politicians who get elected by talking tough about drugs and crime. The war on drugs is a topic that a lot of politicians like to use because it’s an easy way to win votes. (“Just say no to drugs”)
5. The prison industry; indeed, the prison–industrial complex is no illusion. According to the Atlantic, the United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world—perhaps half a million more than Communist China .
6. Terrorist groups that are funded by drug trafficking – the numbers are alarming. Such organizations include Hamas, FARC, ELN, the Talibans, AUC in Colombia, and PCP-SL in Peru – all use drug trafficking to fund their operations and gain recruits and expertise.
 See Counting the Costs: The Alternative World Drug Report (especially section seven on ‘Economics’)