Global drug policy is at a crossroads. The current approach to drugs, supported by most states, seeks to eliminate, or substantially reduce, the production and consumption of illicit substances through strict prohibition and punishment. This approach is rooted in an international drug control regime that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.

However, there is mounting evidence that the current strategy of criminalization, prohibition and strict law enforcement has failed to accomplish its stated objectives. Drug use has not decreased; producer and transit countries face a growing threat of instability and drug-related violence and counter-narcotics initiatives have spurred rampant human rights abuses and health crises:

  • Research shows that punitive measures have failed to curb the sale and the use of illicit drugs. The United Nations estimates that the annual consumption of illicit drugs has increased by a staggering 23.3% in the decade between 1998 and 2008.
  • An abundance of reports spell out the destabilizing effects of drug production and trafficking in Central Asia, Central and South America, and increasingly West Africa. The prohibitionist approach has created an immense black market for illicit drugs that is dominated by criminals and drug cartels, fueling crime and insecurity across communities.
  • Numerous human rights groups increasingly criticize efforts to limit the cultivation of plants used to make illicit drugs. Forced eradication programs have damaged livelihoods and undermined local economies. Even many well-meaning, but often poorly designed, alternative livelihood programs have not had the desired results.
  • In most countries the majority of drug control resources are spent on enforcement mechanisms including police, prisons and courts. Comparatively limited resources are devoted to drug-related health programs, education, and other social programs aimed at preventing the harms of illicit substance use. Many experts argue that failing to treat drug use as a public health issue exacerbates the spread of blood-borne viruses and bacterial infections, especially in weak and underdeveloped countries. Worse, criminalization often perpetuates the stigma and discrimination of people who use drugs and drives them away from life-saving services. A lack of services for people who use drugs has resulted in a fast-growing HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

All this has resulted in an ongoing international debate about alternative drug policies and ending what is commonly referred to as the “war on drugs”. Numerous experts, activists, civil society organizations, as well as a growing number of UN Member States, have called for a reconsideration of the prohibition regime. Members of the Global Commission on Drugs, an international body of drug policy experts and elder statesmen, advocate for an expansion of policies and strategies grounded in public health and human rights. Countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Mexico, Portugal, Switzerland, Czech Republic among others, have introduced alternative strategies or are calling for a debate on international drug policy. In the US, one of the strongest supporters of criminalization, prohibition and strict law enforcement, two states approved ballot initiatives to introduce fully regulated commercial cannabis markets and many others have decriminalized marijuana use.

Given these dynamics, policymakers must come together and chart a trajectory for a new global system aimed at tackling the spread of drugs and reducing its negative consequences. To formulate cohesive and viable solutions, drug policy must be examined through the lenses of economics and public health, criminal justice, law, human rights and international relations. The place to start would be constructive and insightful debates that incorporate a variety of global perspectives. It is high time to start “Rethinking Drugs”.

Essential Reading:

Governing the Global Drug Wars, LSE Ideas Special Report, 2012

World Drug Report, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2012

The War on Drugs: Wasting Billions and Undermining Economies, Count the Costs, 2012

The Alternative World Drug Report: Counting the Costs of the War on Drugs, Count the Costs, 2012

The Global State of Harm Reduction: Towards an Integrated Response, Harm Reduction International, 2012

On Drugs: Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2011

Drug Policy in Portugal: The Benefits of Decriminalizing Drug Use, Open Society Foundations, 2011

Maximizing Systems for Change, State Association of Addiction Services, 2011

After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation, Transform Drug Policy Foundation, 2009