The Drug War's Failures

If we're lucky, our grandchildren will recall the global war on drugs of the late 20th and early 21st century as some bizarre mania to which only past generations could succumb.

The world's drug problems are far more severe today than they were a century ago. Not that drug use has increased fantastically - after all, huge quantities of alcohol, opium and other drugs were consumed back then. The real problem is that today's drug control policies foster more harm than good; indeed, they probably cause more overall harm than drug abuse itself.

Like alcohol Prohibition in the US during the 1920s and early 1930s, global drug prohibition has failed to reduce drug abuse even as it generates extraordinary levels of crime, violence, corruption and disease. In 1998, the UN estimated the total value of the illicit drug trade at $400 billion, or 7% of global trade. Critics say the figure is only half that - still a remarkable sum.

Colombia today is far worse than Chicago under Al Capone. So, too, are other Latin American, Caribbean and Asian countries. Drug prohibition effectively imposes a tax on the global trade in illicit drugs that is enforced by governments and collected by those willing to violate the laws. No other set of laws produces so much revenue for criminals, terrorists and corrupt officials. No other laws generate so much corruption or such violence; and no other set of laws contributes so much to the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases.

The war on drugs persists in part because of two myths. The first assumes that human beings are better off "drug free," and that all societies should strive to be drug free. But few - if any - drug free societies ever existed.

The second myth presumes that prohibition reduces the harm associated with drugs. Global markets in cannabis, opium and coca products are basically similar to other global commodities markets, yet global drug control policies operate on the assumption that the drug markets bear more in common with smallpox and other infectious diseases for which there is no demand.

Governments can act unilaterally and multilaterally to regulate commodity markets, but it is a mistake to perceive prohibition as the ultimate or maximum form of regulation. Prohibition in fact represents the abdication of regulation. Whatever is not suppressed is effectively unregulated, except by criminal organizations.

Around the world, drug law violations account for the largest share of the roughly 8 million people incarcerated in local jails and prisons. In 1980, 50,000 people were incarcerated in the US for drug law violations. Today, the total approaches half-a-million, with a few hundred thousand more locked up on other prohibition-related offenses. That total represents almost 10% of all the world's inmates.

Throughout the developing world, poor peasants involved in producing opium, coca and cannabis are arrested, sometimes beaten, and often extorted by government agents enforcing drug laws. In Bolivia and Peru, coca was integrated into society. The same was true of opium in Asia. Prohibitions imposed by the US and other governments decimated traditions that often "domesticated" these drugs so as to reduce their harm, while simultaneously encouraging transitions to refined drugs like heroin and cocaine. US law enforcement and intelligence agencies routinely provide information to other governments knowing that it will be used not just to arrest but to torture those they identify.

All these consequences of the drug war can be defined as human rights abuses. But the core human rights issue is different - the notion that people should not be punished for what they put into their bodies. That right of sovereignty over one's mind and body - which also incorporates the right not to be forced to take drugs against one's will - represents in some respects the most fundamental of all rights.

Heroin users are denied the most effective medication available to remedy their addiction, i.e., methadone. People unable or unwilling to stop injecting drugs are denied access to sterile syringes, with devastating consequences. Millions who smoke marijuana or consume other psychoactive drugs are harmed far more by state action than by drug use.

More and more voices are calling for a systematic review and revision of the international anti-drug conventions that sustain today's failed policies. Some emphasize the anti-scientific and otherwise illegitimate basis for including cannabis and coca in the conventions. Others point to the contradictions between anti-drug conventions and international human rights conventions. Others note that the anti-drug conventions exacerbate the problems they seek to ameliorate.

A new global drug control regime is needed. It must reject the foolish rhetoric of creating "a drug-free world" and acknowledge that the true challenge is learning to live with drugs so that they cause the least harm. An effective strategy needs to establish realistic objectives and criteria for evaluating success or failure, and these criteria must focus on reducing the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drug use and drug policies. It also must embrace the principle that people should not be punished for what they put into their bodies, but only for the harms they do others. Those are the key elements of a more ethical and effective drug control regime than the one that haunts today's world.