Time to rethink the war on drugs
May 6th, 2014
03:57 PM ET

Time to rethink the war on drugs

By Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch is director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. The views expressed are her own.

The drug trade is, in a word, enormous – of total global crime proceeds, the United Nations has estimated that some $350 billion comes from the sale of illicit drugs. But the economic costs are only one measure of the ineffectiveness of drug policies. When the human costs of violence, human rights abuses, infectious diseases and mass incarceration are considered, the damage to countries and communities is massive.

How bad is it? The London School of Economics this week publishes a report that attempts to quantify some of these consequences of the war on drugs.

The report has been endorsed by five Nobel Prize-winning economists who write, "It is time to end the 'war on drugs' and massively redirect resources towards effective evidence-based policies underpinned by rigorous economic analysis. The pursuit of a militarized and enforcement-led global 'war on drugs' strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage."

Indeed, around the world, prisons are full of minor drug offenders, robbing households of primary wage earners and caretakers as well as devastating vulnerable communities, and the report specifically tracks how the introduction of harsh drug laws has contributed to the surging American prison population.

Consider that in 1980, only six percent of people in state prisons in the United States were incarcerated for drugs. By 2009 that figure stood at 18 percent. The numbers on federal prisons are even more damning. In 1980, 25 percent of prisoners were incarcerated for drugs. In 2010 it was 51 percent of the federal prison population.

Keeping prisons full of non-violent (and often low level) drug offenders is a drain on public coffers, sucking away resources that should be spent on treatment and prevention rather than a criminal justice system that offers very little to those in its care.

Moreover, the stigma of criminalization comes with a bevy of additional costs, driving people away from services, inhibits participation in legal economies and exposes them to greater risks.

Needle and syringe exchange programs are some of the most cost-effective preventive technologies available. After all, the treatment of blood-borne viruses such as HIV can be extremely expensive, while prevention is relatively cheap. A large Australian study, for example, found that for every dollar invested in these services, four are returned in healthcare cost-savings over the next 10 years. When patient/client costs and productivity gains and losses are considered, that figure increased to a return of $27 for every dollar spent.

While similar benefits are associated with opioid maintenance therapies, in the five counties with the highest burden of HIV among injecting drug users only about two percent have access to methadone. Supervised consumption facilities, where people are provided with spaces to use drugs under the supervision of the medical professional with onsite social services are an exception, rather than a rule.

Unfortunately, while recognized as public health best practices, these services are woefully underfunded and often come with very little political support. And there is perhaps no greater poster case for the failure of international drug control strategies than the violence that has plagued so-called "producer" and "transit" states in Latin America. Enforcement efforts, while having some successes, have generally just pushed the illicit drug trade, and related violence, across borders.

We've seen the drug trade move from Colombia to Mexico through various parts of Central America with no evidence that the overall supply of drugs have been affected at all.

The vast imbalance with how drug laws are enforced tests the credibility of the entire regime. The world's banks are flooded with drug money and they get off by paying hefty penalties (last year, for example, HSBC Holdings agreed to pay nearly $2 billion) while the rural poor languish in prisons or are thrown off land that feeds their families for growing small amounts of coca or opium.

As countries experiencing surges in drug activity see murder rates rise, corruption increase and social fabric of societies ripped to shreds, how much longer is it acceptable to ask them to be part of a failed strategy?

In addition, a greater question now is what can be done?

The LSE report urges the United Nations to drop its "repressive, 'one-size-fits-all' approach" and to "take the lead in advocating a new cooperative international framework based on the fundamental acceptance that different policies will work for different countries and regions."

There's a reason why these calls are being directed at the United Nations. In 2016, at the request of several Latin American presidents, the U.N. General Assembly will hold a special session to review the functioning of the drug control system. The London School of Economics report is being delivered to a representative of the Guatemalan government – Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina inspired the 2016 session and has said he will use it in negotiations with other governments.

The international discussions around drugs are sure to be tense. There is a powerful coalition that stands in defense of harsh drug laws, including Russia, Japan, Pakistan, China and Egypt. There are others in Europe that fully support a greater emphasis on health-based approaches, but are reluctant to tinker with international norms.

Against this backdrop, the role of the United States is still undetermined, not least because it has traditionally been a barrier to progressive reforms internationally. Yet even in the U.S., new marijuana policies in Washington and Colorado, as well as recent federal efforts to address mass incarceration, signal there may be some evolution in American attitudes.

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Topics: Drugs • United Nations

soundoff (70 Responses)
  1. bobcat2u

    Not only is it time to rethink the war on drugs, it's time to rethink our involvement in every nit picking crapped out war we can find.

    May 6, 2014 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  2. The ENTIRE GOP PLATFORM in a single paragraph

    The GOP Prayer/Mantra/Solution: Dear God...With your loving kindness, help us to turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Female, and Gay people into slaves. Then, with your guidance and compassion, we will whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Male, and Straight. Or until they are dead. God...Grant us the knowledge to then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military during the next "unfunded/off-the-books" war. God...Give us the strength during our speeches to repeatedly yell........TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!!!..........and........GET RID OF SS AND MEDICARE!!!
    In your name we prey (purposely misspelled, or is it?)........Amen

    May 6, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  3. bobcat2u

    A young man on acid walked into a dentist's office and said, " Can you help me? I think I'm a moth."
    The dentist said, "You don't need a dentist. You need a psychiatrist."
    "Yes, I know," the man said.
    The dentist asked, "So then why did you come in here?"
    The man replied, "The light was on."

    May 6, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  4. bobcat2u

    Q: What do you get when you take ecstasy and birth control pills?
    A: A trip without the kids.

    May 6, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Reply
    • Homie

      The original joke, was crossing LSD and Birth Control.

      July 17, 2014 at 5:04 am | Reply
  5. chrissy

    Amen @ bobcat. Particularly when our government over the years has introduced many of these drugs to US citizens! Im thinking IQ and Competency tests should be given to ALL government employees and elected clowns!

    May 6, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  6. bobcat2u

    A little rabbit is happily running through the forest when he
    stumbles upon a giraffe rolling a joint.
    The rabbit looks at her and says, 'Giraffe, my friend, Think about
    what you're doing to yourself! Come with me running through the
    forest, you'll see, you'll feel so much better!' The giraffe looks
    at him, looks at the joint, tosses it and goes off running with the
    rabbit.

    Then they come across an elephant doing coke. So the rabbit
    again says, 'Elephant my friend, why do you do this? Think about
    what you're doing to yourself! Come running with us through the
    pretty forest, you'll see, you'll feel so good!' The elephant looks
    at them, looks at his razor, mirror and all, then tosses them and
    starts running with the rabbit and giraffe.

    The three animals then come across a lion about to shoot up some
    smack. 'Lion my friend, why do you do this? Think about what you're
    doing to yourself! Come running with us through the sunny forest, you
    will feel so good!' The lion looks at him, puts down his needle, and
    starts to beat the mess out of the little rabbit.

    The giraffe and elephant watch in horror, then finally obtain the
    presence of mind to pull the lion off the rabbit. 'Lion,' they
    reprimand, 'why did you do this? He was merely trying to help us
    all!' The lion answers, 'That little fkr has me running around
    the forest like an idiot for hours every time he's on ecstasy!'

    May 6, 2014 at 5:46 pm | Reply
  7. chrissy

    Lmao love that! A trip without the kids...funny stuff.

    May 6, 2014 at 5:46 pm | Reply
  8. bobcat2u

    Alcohol and calculus don't mix...Don't drink and derive.

    May 6, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  9. Gabriel Rocche

    Wow!!! All you have to do is read these posts to see the damage drugs have done to American society... God help us

    May 6, 2014 at 8:10 pm | Reply
    • George Patton-2

      Thank you, Gabriel. I fully agree.

      May 10, 2014 at 8:49 am | Reply
  10. chrissy

    No sense of humor @ Gabriel? Life has to be pretty boring for you.

    May 6, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  11. bobcat2u

    A day without humor is like a day without bobcat. How can one survive.

    May 6, 2014 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  12. bobcat2u

    @ Gabriel
    What did you expect ? The topic was on drugs, and viola, it's all on topic.

    May 6, 2014 at 9:18 pm | Reply
  13. dazzle

    Bobcat thanks for the laughs. Who needs drugs!

    May 6, 2014 at 10:27 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      I'm a little skeptical here dazzle. I really don't want to start conversing with a troll/hijacker. When did you start showing up in blue ?

      May 6, 2014 at 10:46 pm | Reply
      • bobcat2u

        And dazzle, if it s you, I apologize. And a giant hello to you and yours. It's just really hard to judge who you're talking to anymore.

        May 6, 2014 at 11:00 pm |
  14. dazzle

    No BC it really is me. A great big hello to you!! It's blue with a different device.

    May 6, 2014 at 11:20 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      I was caught off guard with your new look. The last we talked, you were still in the black, like me. I guess I need to join the rest of you in the 21st century and update my media interaction device.

      May 6, 2014 at 11:43 pm | Reply
      • dazzle

        I use this one when Im away from the PC. We have four floors in this house, so it helps to have the little hand held.

        May 6, 2014 at 11:53 pm |
      • bobcat2u

        Four floors ? Dang, that wears me out just thinking about it.

        May 7, 2014 at 12:12 am |
  15. rupert

    The article was very coherent, but these remarks indicate that people posting comments ARE adversely affected by drugs.
    Thank u, Gabriel R. You confirmed my hypothesis and observation.

    May 6, 2014 at 11:39 pm | Reply
    • malcolmkyle

      Would you possibly elaborate?

      May 7, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      They listen to all the government, special interest, and lobbyists propaganda.

      May 8, 2014 at 10:22 am | Reply
  16. Allan Kinsman

    Government needs to protect us from government. If we saved some cash from all our wars we are having we could do something.

    May 7, 2014 at 2:32 am | Reply
  17. chrissy

    Lol @ rupert...it EVER there was a blogger here who appeared to be adversely affected by drugs...YOU would be that poster child!!!!

    May 7, 2014 at 7:49 am | Reply
    • rupert

      @chrissy. How dare you make such an assertion.

      May 7, 2014 at 8:53 am | Reply
  18. chrissy

    And @ bobcat i was at my doctors yesterday when i was reading these jokes, and he got quite the chuckle out of your "trip without the kids joke!" lol

    May 7, 2014 at 7:52 am | Reply
  19. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    One Bayer aspirin tablet will not produce a good buzz, but I learned in high school that 975 mg of that pharmaceutical would match a mild dose of meprobamate. Of course, that was a 1950s high school that would leave a Child Behind, and students there could drive 975 mg from 5 gr – oops, @ bobcat, I meant derive.
    Removing the profit motive from illegal drugs would reduce the number of crimes committed in that trade, but just imagine the loss of income to treatment professionals!

    May 7, 2014 at 9:16 am | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      Love the derivation Joey. It's been a while since I've gotten a morning grin. Thank you.

      May 7, 2014 at 10:52 am | Reply
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

        That will be a question on Common Core exams in 2015:
        "So how many Bayer aspirin tablets did Joey take to get stoned in high school?"
        The next question will be:
        "Do you think that Joey was graduated from high school?"

        May 7, 2014 at 2:45 pm |
  20. chrissy

    Lol @ Joey, good post except i don't know what meprobabate is.

    May 7, 2014 at 10:06 am | Reply
  21. chrissy

    Sorry i spelled that wrong. Metrabomate i mean.

    May 7, 2014 at 10:08 am | Reply
  22. chrissy

    Lol well he!! i still got it wrong...meprobamate!

    May 7, 2014 at 10:15 am | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      Miltown by any other name is still an early downer, less fun in fast dancing than Valium, which proved more efficacious in producing addiction.
      I think that Miltown was named for a road in Brewster, NY.
      Miltown//meprobamate = champagne/un panache'

      May 7, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  23. chrissy

    Really @ rupert? How dare i NOT after YOUR comment!

    May 7, 2014 at 10:17 am | Reply
  24. Joseph McCarthy

    The best way to fight the war on drugs is to reduce the demand for them. As long as there's a demand out there for all these drugs, it will be met one way or another. The government needs to set up more rehab centers while the parents need to instill the dangers of drug use in their children at an early age. This way, when they grow up, they'll think twice before getting started down this dangerous path.

    May 7, 2014 at 10:42 am | Reply
    • Jose79845

      On the contrary, we want to increase the demand for marijuana that kills zero and decrease the demand for alcohol that kills 3 million people every year.

      May 15, 2014 at 10:59 am | Reply
    • TiredOfPaying

      Nice theory, except for one thing: You cannot decrease the demand. People WANT to do drugs. So what you have put into place is a totalitarian police state which crushes the lives of minor drug offenders, removing their ability to ever be hired for a real job, while destroying the family unit and costing you and me tremendous amounts of money. Now, if you think all of that is 'worth it' to keep people from smoking a joint in their own bedroom, then I have great difficulty in treating you as an American. Then again, based on your name, any idea you have should be rejected. We saw all the damage your namesake did to this country in his witch hunt against Communism. I guess there is no amount of collateral damage which you find unacceptable.

      The times are changing. Legalization WILL happen, and soon. And when that time comes, we'll free up half of our prison cells and rejuevenate our economy. Then there will be a place to put YOU, as you are exhibiting anti-American behavior and obviously need 'correction.'

      June 17, 2014 at 9:17 am | Reply
  25. peace - no war

    No war on drugs, but defense against drugs.

    May 8, 2014 at 7:42 am | Reply
  26. Mike

    Joseph McCarthy

    The best way to fight the war on drugs is to reduce the demand for them

    Thats what the government been doing for the last 85 years. Mankind has been altering the mind since the beginning of civilization. You can see the result of the war on the American people.

    May 8, 2014 at 10:38 am | Reply
    • TiredOfPaying

      Joseph McCarthy doesn't care about collateral damage. Any price is worth it to enforce his totaliarian wet dream.

      June 17, 2014 at 9:19 am | Reply
  27. chrissy

    Oh good grief! It was the CIA that introduced crack cocaine to the US in the late 70s and early 80s in the hopes of controlling the "black population!" Well we can see how well THAT worked out cant we?

    May 9, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Reply
    • George Patton-2

      Quite true chrissy, quite true. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the C.I.A. itself was involved in the massive drug trafficking in Latin America today. That was probably why the prosecutors at the trial of Manuel Antonio Noriega wanted to keep that under wraps and the judge agreed, possibly for a bribe!

      May 10, 2014 at 8:54 am | Reply
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