Why has the drug war been so resilient?


The below is an extract from Transform's publication, 'Ending the war on drugs: How to win the global drug policy debate'.


Despite the growing consensus that the war on drugs has failed, the drug policy debate often remains driven more by populist politics, geopolitical pressures, and sensationalist media headlines than by rational analysis.1

Rather than being treated as a health or social issue, drug use is still presented as an imminent threat to our children, national security, and the moral fabric of society itself. The current criminalisation-led prohibition model is then positioned and implemented as an emergency response to this threat, often using populist political rhetoric such as 'crackdowns' on crime, corruption, and terrorism.

A self-justifying circular logic is now used to support this approach, meaning the policy-related harms that result from prohibition – such as drug-related organised crime or deaths from contaminated street drugs – are conflated with the harms of drug use, to bolster the narrative of the 'drugs menace' or 'world drug problem'. This threat-based narrative is then used to justify the continuation, or intensification, of the drug war that caused many of the problems in the first place. This has helped create a high-level policy environment that routinely ignores or actively suppresses critical scientific engagement, and is divorced from most public health and social policy norms, such as evaluation of policy using health and human rights indicators.

However, this misrepresentation of the drugs problem, and refusal to assess the outcomes of drug policy, also results from a number of broader political dynamics. Many politicians and entire political groupings have committed to 'fighting drugs because they are dangerous', in order to take a 'muscular' approach that impresses key parts of the electorate, or out of fear of being accused of being called 'soft on drugs'. Similarly, there has been a huge financial commitment on the part of both the public and private sectors in the apparatus and infrastructure required to fight the war on drugs in every country. So reform threatens to disrupt the funding and power of numerous groups, from the army, the police and prison guard unions to the companies that build or run private prisons, all of which have influence. 

As a result, governments' priorities have often become perverse and unrelated to those of the citizens they serve. The efficacy of drug policy ceases to be the primary concern, as long as its failure is not undermining other purely political goals. Unsurprisingly, the last thing prohibitionist politicians want is an evidence-based examination of the current system that might expose their perverse priorities.

Such problems with the raw politics of prohibition are then often compounded by a misunderstanding or ignorance about the alternatives among policymakers, the public and media. Many of the arguments against prohibition are complex and frequently counterintuitive – as opposed to the simplistic, binary arguments in favour of prohibition. This makes the issue hard to debate, especially in contexts of limited written space or air-time, and puts reform arguments at a relative disadvantage. Until recently, there was no clearly expressed vision of what a post-prohibition world could look like, particularly with regard to the legal regulation of drug markets and the benefits it could bring. Without a plan for a post-drug-war world, the debate tended to stall, unable to move beyond agreement that there was a problem. We now have credible and comprehensive work outlining how such regulation can work,2 3 4 as well as a growing body of evidence from real world regulatory models.  

Equally important is the widely held view that using illegal drugs is intrinsically immoral. As a result, arguments about the effectiveness of drug policy have not had much traction, and evidence-based pragmatism has often been replaced by moral grandstanding (this will be discussed in an upcoming blog).

Finally, we must put all of this into a global context. The US in particular has expended huge diplomatic, military and economic capital to ensure that prohibition is a deeply entrenched policy. One of the motives behind this has been the desire to use the drug war as a tool for delivering wider foreign policy goals, with it becoming an excuse and rationale for direct or indirect military intervention in many other countries.

When coupled with a UN system specifically designed to implement and police prohibition, it is no wonder that the punitive enforcement approach has become entrenched, institutionalised, and largely immune from meaningful scrutiny.

Consequently, the drug war is often perceived to be an immutable part of the political landscape, rather than just one option from a spectrum of possible policy frameworks, examples of which are already in place for other risky activities and substances. But things are changing...


Primarily coming from the United States, other multilateral organisations within which the influence of American politics remains strong, and most recently from countries defending radical approaches to drugs, such as Russia.

2 Rolles S. (2009) After the War on Drugs, Blueprint for Regulation, Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

3 Health Officers Council of British Colombia (2005) A Public Health Approach to Drug Control.

The King County Bar Association (2005) Effective Drug Control: Toward A New Legal Framework.