After five decades, the “war on drugs” has not led to good results

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by Hans Dembowski

International Commission on Drug Policy deserves attention

Intoxicant substances are dangerous, no matter whether they are legal or illegal. If it worked, prohibition would be a good idea. Experience tells that it does not. Regulation is a better option.

Alcoholic drinks are banned in many predominantly Muslim countries, but there tends to be an illegal black market nonetheless. One downside of alcohol prohibition is that people often opt for hard liquor like whiskey instead of beer, a less potent, less dangerous and less addictive drink. It is harder to smuggle, distribute and consume beer in secrecy however. When a drug is illegal, people tend to get only its most powerful and most dangerous variety.

In European cultures, alcoholic beverages have been common for millennia and the idea of banning them seems absurd. The USA, by contrast, tried to eradicate alcoholic drinks from 1920 to 1933. The policy failed. Mafia organisations imported booze and insured black-market supply throughout the nation. They also sold other illegal substances, including opiates and cannabis. A lasting impact of prohibition was that organised crime became deeply entrenched.

In the early 1970s, US President Richard Nixon launched a war on drugs. The professed goal was to abolish cannabis, opiates, cocaine and various other intoxicating substances. The background was that, in the late 1960s, a left-leaning counterculture in the US had glorified the use of some drugs, and Nixon’s tough stance helped to mobilise his conservative base. His approach fast became the international norm as the global community adopted repressive policies on drugs.

Nearly five decades later, it is obvious that the war on drugs has not gone well. Not one advanced nation – whether in North America, Europe or Japan – has been freed of drugs. Other nations, however, have borne the main brunt of the anti-drug campaigns. Suffering was worst in countries like Columbia, Mexico or Afghanistan, where full-blown military action was taken to eradicate the cultivation of drugs or to block transit routes. Masses of people died, but illegal substances stayed available in most cities and towns around the world.

In Europe, repression of drug users has slowly been giving way to decriminalisation. The use of drugs is still forbidden, but largely tolerated nonetheless. In Frankfurt, where D+C is based, heroin users are given safe syringes and provided with spaces where they can inject the drug. The municipal authorities decided in the 1990s that reducing harm was more important than enforcing the law. Its new approach to double goal: protect the health of addicts and limit other people’s exposure to crime. The point is that heroin users who have a niche in society pose less of a threat to everyone else than heroin users who are outcast. Similar approaches have been taken in many places in Europe. 

As for cannabis, Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in the 1990s that it was disproportionate to punish people who possessed small amounts for personal use. Sending people to prison, after all, stigmatises them for life. Moreover, they acquire knowledge of criminal practices which they are later likely to use in lack of job opportunities after being released. Today, possession of small amounts of cannabis is neither legal nor prosecuted in Germany. Such ambiguity undermines people’s faith in the rule of law.

In the meantime, several US states and, most recently, Canada have even legalised cannabis. In the USA, however, federal law still bans the drug, so the situation is just as ambiguous as in Germany. Law enforcement, moreover, is affected by racial discrimination, with black people being more likely to be prosecuted and sentenced for drug-related offences than white people. At the same time, a new opioid crisis is wreaking havoc in the States. Heroin is only part of the problem; the illegal use of prescription opioids is widespread too. So far, American authorities do not have a grip on the problem.

It is clear, however, that the rich nations increasingly consider the drugs problem to be one of public health rather than one of criminal law. In many developing countries, by contrast, the war on drugs is still escalating. According to Human Rights Watch, some 12,000 people have died in related violence in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte pledged to uproot drug trafficking two years ago. Bangladesh’s government started to make similar promises this year, and so far, about 200 deaths have been reported.

In the past 20 years, however, Mexico was probably the country that suffered most in the war on drugs. According to CNN), some 150,000 people were killed since President Felipe Calderón involved the military in the fight against drug cartels in 2006. His campaign resulted in a dramatic escalation of violence, with organised crime increasingly infiltrating agencies of the state. Twelve years later, the country’s security situation is dramatically bad.

An essential component of the drama is always that organised crime gangs are able to recruit marginalised and disillusioned young men. That is the true all over the world. Gangs provide livelihoods. The prospects are awful, of course, including life behind bars and early death. To some desperate people, the option looks attractive nonetheless.

Of all least developed countries, Afghanistan may actually be the one that is best integrated into the world market. Unfortunately, it is integrated into the illegal black market. Drug money accounts for one fifth to one third of the country’s GDP, according to scholars. This huge share means that it is next to impossible to eradicate the drug economy. In remote rural areas of countries like Columbia or Afghanistan, moreover, growing drugs tends to be the economically safest option for many farmers.

Where the illegal drug business is strong, organised crime typically exists in symbiosis with some state agencies, as Thiago Rodrigues, a Brazilian scholar, argues. The gangs tend not to challenge the authority of the government as such. They use violence to protect themselves, their local monopolies on selling drugs and discipline the people who work for them, but they are not keen on constant battles with the security forces. In many cases, they manage to forge alliances with some police departments or military units. The cartels’ vast financial resources help them to corrupt officers.

The plain truth is that war on drugs has not delivered a drug-free world. If anything, drugs have become more commonly available. Criminal cartels are in control of a gigantic black market that spans all continents.

Faith in the rule of law is being undermined. On the one hand, legal ambiguity increasingly marks rich countries, where harm reduction is now getting more attention than law enforcement. On the other hand, indiscriminate repression is causing excessive suffering in many developing countries. Obviously, human rights are being trampled on wherever security forces are given a free hand.

Yes, illegal drugs are dangerous. It would be irresponsible to simply legalise them. The International Commission on Drug Policy, which is chaired by Ruth Dreyfuss, the former Swiss president, recommends regulation instead. The Commission’s proposals deserve attention. We lack a better alternative. The experience Europe and North America have with alcohol shows that regulation is the best way to reduce harm because prohibition does not do the job.


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