The 'War on Drugs'

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The current global approach to drugs is centred around a policy of prohibition. Drug prohibition is a global legal system cemented in place by the 1961, 1971, and 1988 UN drug treaties, and incorporated into the domestic law of over 150 countries. It mandates criminal sanctions for the production, supply and possession/use of certain psychoactive drugs, although the penalties vary widely between countries.

Prohibition was originally framed as a policy motivated by the “health and welfare of mankind” and a desire to “combat” the “serious evil” of “addiction to narcotic drugs”. The stated aim of this prohibition was to reduce the production, supply and use of these particular drugs to ultimately create a ‘drug-free society’ – or as one UN slogan put it: “A Drug Free World: We Can Do It!” The use of drugs would therefore be restricted exclusively to medical and scientific purposes.

Then in 1971 US President Richard Nixon decided, for domestic political gain, to describe the policy of drug prohibition as the ‘war on drugs’ – one of many military metaphors employed by successive US governments. This was a way to fix in the public’s mind that drugs and those involved in their production, supply and use were enemies of America, legitimising the use of extreme measures that would otherwise have been unacceptable.

In most countries, the ‘war on drugs’ approach has continued largely unchanged for the past forty years, despite politicians now shying away from the phrase due to its increasingly obvious failures. Indeed, while their rhetoric has shifted to put a greater emphasis on public health, education and prevention, the key components of the current global approach to drugs are still criminalisation and punitive law enforcement efforts.

President Nixon formally launches the 'war on drugs'

The war on drugs was launched with the aim of eliminating drugs from society. However, despite spiralling enforcement costs of over $100 billion per year, this policy has not prevented the long-term, global trend of increasing drug supply and use1, with drugs getting cheaper and stronger.2

While the drug war has failed on its own terms, it has itself also produced a range of negative impacts, generated in large part by gifting the drug trade, which is valued at roughly $320 billion,3 to organised – and often violent – criminal profiteers.

The result is that today’s drug problems now closely mirror those once associated with alcohol in the US, during the country’s disastrous prohibition of that drug in the 1920s and early 1930s. However, the problems stemming from the current prohibition encompass many more drugs, and a vastly larger, global illegal market.

These problems are inevitable. The basic economics of prohibiting a substance for which there remains high demand are the same for alcohol or any other drug. Prohibition pushes up the price and creates greater profit margins, so criminals get involved to meet the demand, resulting in the same kind of illicit markets with the same kinds of problems.

Even the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) – the very agency responsible for enforcing global prohibition – has acknowledged that international drug policy has created a “lucrative and violent black market [for drugs]”. Just one of five negative “unintended consequences” that have been identified by the UNODC as products of the current approach to drugs.4 The others are:

  1. ‘Policy displacement’ – scarce resources are redirected from health to enforcement
  2. ‘The balloon effect’ – enforcement does not eliminate drug production, transit and supply: it simply shifts it somewhere else
  3. ‘Substance displacement’ – enforcement does not eliminate drug use, at best it moves users on to different drugs
  4. Stigmatisation and discrimination – drug users are deterred from seeking treatment and support by widespread disrespect and demonisation

While this is a staggering admission from the body charged with overseeing the international drug control system, academics, NGOs and other groups have identified even more ways in which the war on drugs is inadvertently causing harm.

Led by Transform and supported by over 100 other NGOs, Count the Costs highlights how the drug war:

Unlike the costs of other policies, these costs of the drug war have never been properly acknowledged or investigated by the governments and agencies responsible for them.


1 Global Commission on Drug Policy (2011) 'Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy', p. 4. 

2 Werb, D., Kerr, T. Nosyk, B. et al. (2013) 'The temporal relationship between drug supply indicators: an audit of international goverment surveillance systems', BMJ Open.

3 UNODC (2005) '2005 World Drug Report', p. 127.

4 UNODC (2008) '2008 World Drug Report', p. 216.

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.

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 then used to support this approach, in which 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 apparent menace of ‘drugs’. This in turn is used to justify the continuation, or intensification, of the drug war that caused many of the problems in the first place. All of which has helped create a high-level policy environment that 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 the refusal to assess the outcomes of drug policy, also results from a number of broader political dynamics.

Many politicians and entire political groupings have made a huge political investment in ‘fighting drugs because they are dangerous’, in order to gain politically from taking a ‘muscular’ approach that impresses key segments of the electorate, or out of fear of being accused of being ‘soft on drugs’. Similarly, there has been a huge financial investment by both the public and private sectors in the apparatus and infrastructure for dealing with the drug problem in every country. So reform threatens to disrupt the funding and power of numerous groups, from the army and police to the companies that build prisons, all of which have influence.

As a result, governments’ priorities have often become perverse, and unrelated to those of the citizens they serve. So any failings of this policy are often not the primary concern, if that 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 these 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. In fact, until relatively recently, there was no clearly expressed vision of what a post-prohibition world would look like, particularly regarding 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.

Equally importantly, in many countries there is a widely held view that using illegal drugs is intrinsically immoral. As a result, arguments about the effectiveness of policy, as normally understood for other policy areas, have not had much traction, and evidence-based pragmatism has often been replaced by moral grandstanding.

Finally, we must put all of this into a global context. The US in particular has expended huge diplomatic, military and economic capital to lock in prohibition, in part to enable it to use the drug war as a tool to deliver wider foreign policy goals, culminating in 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.

As a result, the drug war is often perceived to be a fixed part of the political landscape, rather than just one option from a spectrum of possible legal/policy frameworks, examples of which already exist for other risky activities and substances. But things are changing.

Polls consistently demonstrate that a majority of the public does not believe the war on drugs is working. A 2012 Rasmussen poll, for example, found that 82% of the American public do not believe that the country is winning the fight against illicit drugs. Similarly, an Angus Reid poll from the same year reported that only 10% of Americans believe that the war on drugs has been a success.

UK public opinion, too, is divided along similar lines, with various polls showing that a majority recognise that current drug policy is failing. According to one poll, 77% of MPs themselves believe that the UK’s policies are not effective in tackling the problems caused by illegal drugs.

But although there is a general consensus that drug policy needs to change, there is less agreement on how to move forward – especially with regard to so-called ‘harder’ drugs. This is in part due to poor polling that often gives a very limited, if any, description of what possible options for reform would look like in practice. In particular, simply asking respondents if they support legalising some or all drugs is problematic. This is because legalisation is merely a process of making something illegal legal, rather than a policy end point. A straight ‘Legalisation: yes/no?’ question gives no indication of how the legal regulatory regime being advocated as the final outcome of the process might actually function.

Nevertheless, in the case of the world’s mostly widely used illicit drug, cannabis, support for decriminalisation or legalisation/regulation has risen steadily in much of the developed world. This is particularly striking in the US, where according to one poll support for legalisation reached a majority in 2013, despite a context of on-going bi-partisan political hostility. This is a very positive precedent for the drug policy and law reform movement as a whole. What is clear is that exposure to informed debate on the cannabis issue invariably pushes opinion away from prohibition and towards reform – the same is certainly true for the debate around drug law reform more broadly.

In February 2013, polling carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Transform found that the UK public is also receptive to the idea of cannabis law reform. 53% of respondents were in favour of either the legalisation (legal regulation of production and supply) or the decriminalisation of possession of cannabis, while only 1 in 7 supported heavier penalties and more money being spent on enforcement for cannabis offences.

In addition, when the outcomes of Portugal’s policy of decriminalisation were briefly described, almost 40% of the public supported the introduction of the same policy in the UK for the possession of small quantities of any drug. A higher proportion, 67%, wanted to see a comprehensive independent review of all the possible policy options – from legal market regulation to tougher enforcement – for controlling drugs.

There are four main options for drug policy reform:

  • Increasing the intensity of the war on drugs
  • Refinements to a primarily criminal justice-led approach
  • Reorientation to a health-based approach, and decriminalisation of drug use
  • State regulation and control of drug production and supply
For an overview of each of these options, and their pros and cons, see our briefing produced as part of the Count the Costs initiative entitled 'The War on Drugs: Options and Alternatives'.