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5 Reasons Why Nobel Prize Economists Are Calling To End The Global War On Drugs

The drug war has been ineffective, damages democracies, and leads to mass incarceration. Maybe it’s time to end it.

5 Reasons Why Nobel Prize Economists Are Calling To End The Global War On Drugs
[Image: Eggs via Shutterstock]

The “war on drugs” in the U.S., ongoing since the early 1970s, is the subject of growing scrutiny. Recreational marijuana is now legal in Colorado. It’s no longer okay that the U.S. holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, in large part due to the mass incarceration of disproportionately minority communities under drug policing and sentencing laws.

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Now five Nobel Prize-winning economists have joined with numerous other experts and the London School of Economics to expand the conversation to a global level.

In an expansive new report, the group outlines the “enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage” of the militarized warfare on the illicit drug trade, and the positive benefits that would come from redirection resources to prevention, harm reduction, and treatment for drug users.

“The strategy has failed based on its own terms. Evidence shows that drug prices have been declining while purity has been increasing. This has been despite drastic increases in global enforcement spending,” they write.

The damages of the war on drugs, enforced by what the report calls a “repressive, one size fits all” policy from the United Nations, are shocking, including highly repressive policies in Asia, vast corruption and political destabilization in Afghanistan and West Africa, immense violence in Latin America, an HIV epidemic in Russia, an acute global shortage of pain medication and the propagation of systematic human rights abuses around the world.

Here are just a few of the reasons the authors believe it’s time to call a truce:

1) The Societal Burden Of Drug Addiction Is Unequal

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Under a policy of complete drug legalization, “consumer” countries like the U.S. bear the costs, including higher expenses for health care, prevention, and education programs, as well as productivity losses associated with more prevalent drug use.

But that’s not what happens. Instead, with full prohibition, countries like the U.S. get the benefits–a lower drug supply and higher prices–with fewer costs to society. But these costs don’t disappear. They are pushed to drug producer and transit countries that bear the burden of violence, conflict, and corruption that comes with policing the illegal drug trade for the benefit of the consumers.

In Mexico, for example, the total homicide rate increased threefold between 2006 and 2010, largely due to the President Felipe Calderon’s military crackdown on drug cartels beginning in 2006.

The authors pose the following thought experiment: “Suppose for a moment that all cocaine consumption in the U.S. disappears and goes to Canada. Would the U.S. authorities be willing to confront drug trafficking networks at the cost of seeing the homicide rate in cities such as Seattle go up from its current level of about five homicides per 100,000 individuals to a level close to 150 in order to prevent cocaine shipments from reaching Vancouver?”

They think perhaps not. But that’s exactly what countries like Colombia, Mexico, and other Latin American countries have been doing in the last two decades, in exchange for receiving U.S. aid to fight the drug war. These countries, however, are starting to realize the money isn’t worth the tradeoff and foregoing aid to retain control over their own drug policies.

2) The Global War On Drugs Has Been Largely Ineffective

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When one country cracks down, often, cartels and trafficking simply move somewhere else. Good data is hard to come by, but what exists supports that this is more or less is what happens. For example, experts believe the emergence of a West African route for cocaine to Europe may have been in response to an Dutch crackdown on an existing route from the Caribbean to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

In general, the authors say, the intensity of efforts to intercept drugs has not noticeably affected the global market, in terms of availability and price to users. Successful cases of eradication of drug crops or interception of drug movements in one country have at most generated a two-year lag before production and supply recovered.

3) The War On Drugs Has “Constitutional Costs” For Democracies

A number of countries have altered constitutional texts and interpretations to accommodate the war on drugs, often to the detriment of long-standing principles, values, and rights. “These are not problems of unconstitutional behavior on the part of authorities, but rather an alteration in what is deemed constitutional,” writes Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, a law professor in Mexico.

Lajous documents instances of this in Mexico, Colombia, and the U.S. In Mexico, during President Calderon’s ramping up of the “war on drugs,” 17 amendments to various legal texts, including the constitution, were made. For example, in 2008, Mexico created two different pathways through its criminal system. One was progressive, including enhanced rights and transparency. The other was an “exceptional regime of reduced rights and extraordinary police powers” for cases of ‘organized crime’ delinquency, i.e. drug crime cases.

4) The U.S. Problem Of Mass Incarceration Could Expand Globally

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The rapid rise of mass incarceration in the U.S., largely for drug-related crimes, is the reason this country has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Most other developed countries don’t imprison drug users en masse like in the U.S., but this practice is on the rise in developing countries with growing drug markets, like in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The case of America demonstrates how high rates of imprisonment can become socially ‘toxic’ – damaging population health, deforming vital family, community, and societal structures and compromising human rights on a massive scale,” writes Ernest Drucker, a Columbia University epidemiologist and author of the report. He details the impacts on those imprisoned–including lack of treatment for mental health and drug problems–but also on their families and often minority communities.

5) Drug-Related Health Services Are Effective, But Woefully Underfunded

Globally, countries spend a major $100 billion a year on drug-related law enforcement, according to one estimate. Meanwhile, drug-related health and social services are often “underfunded and inadequate to meet the need.”

That’s a mistake, writes Joanne Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program in New York City. She documents a significant body of evidence that shows health services for drug users reaps major social and economic benefits, including reduction of crime and increasing the ability of people who have lived with addiction to be economically productive. Rethinking the allocation of resources should be a high priority for “fiscally minded governments,” she suggests.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire

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