Category Archives: War On Drugs

The Failed War on Drugs – George P. Shultz and Pedro Aspe

The war on drugs in the United States has been a failure that has ruined lives, filled prisons and cost a fortune. It started during the Nixon administration with the idea that, because drugs are bad for people, they should be difficult to obtain. As a result, it became a war on supply.

As first lady during the crack epidemic, Nancy Reagan tried to change this approach in the 1980s. But her “Just Say No” campaign to reduce demand received limited support.

Over the objections of the supply-focused bureaucracy, she told a United Nations audience on Oct. 25, 1988: “If we cannot stem the American demand for drugs, then there will be little hope of preventing foreign drug producers from fulfilling that demand. We will not get anywhere if we place a heavier burden of action on foreign governments than on America’s own mayors, judges and legislators. You see, the cocaine cartel does not begin in Medellín, Colombia. It begins in the streets of New York, Miami, Los Angeles and every American city where crack is bought and sold.”

Her warning was prescient, but not heeded. Studies show that the United States has among the highest rates of drug use in the world. But even as restricting supply has failed to curb abuse, aggressive policing has led to thousands of young drug users filling American prisons, where they learn how to become real criminals.

The prohibitions on drugs have also created perverse economic incentives that make combating drug producers and distributors extremely difficult. The high black-market price for illegal drugs has generated huge profits for the groups that produce and sell them, income that is invested in buying state-of-the-art weapons, hiring gangs to defend their trade, paying off public officials and making drugs easily available to children, to get them addicted.

Drug gangs, armed with money and guns from the United States, are causing bloody mayhem in Mexico, El Salvador and other Central American countries. In Mexico alone, drug-related violence has resulted in over 100,000 deaths since 2006. This violence is one of the reasons people leave these countries to come to the United States.

Add it all up and one can see that focusing on supply has done little to curtail drug abuse while causing a host of terrible side effects. What, then, can we do?

First the United States and Mexican governments must acknowledge the failure of this strategy. Only then can we engage in rigorous and countrywide education campaigns to persuade people not to use drugs.

The current opioid crisis underlines the importance of curbing demand. This approach, with sufficient resources and the right message, could have a major impact similar to the campaign to reduce tobacco use.

We should also decriminalize the small-scale possession of drugs for personal use, to end the flow of nonviolent drug addicts into the criminal justice system. Several states have taken a step in this direction by decriminalizing possession of certain amounts of marijuana. Mexico’s Supreme Court has also declared that individuals should have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for their personal use. At the same time, we should continue to make it illegal to possess large quantities of drugs so that pushers can be prosecuted and some control over supply maintained.

Finally, we must create well-staffed and first-class treatment centers where people are willing to go without fear of being prosecuted and with the confidence that they will receive effective care. The experience of Portugal  suggests that younger people who use drugs but are not yet addicted can very often be turned around. Even though it is difficult to get older addicted people off drugs, treatment programs can still offer them helpful services.

With such a complicated problem, we should be willing to experiment with solutions. Which advertising messages are most effective? How can treatment be made effective for different kinds of drugs and different degrees of addiction? We should have the patience to evaluate what works and what doesn’t. But we must get started now.

As these efforts progress, profits from the drug trade will diminish greatly even as the dangers of engaging in it will remain high. The result will be a gradual lessening of violence in Mexico and Central American countries.

We have a crisis on our hands — and for the past half-century, we have been failing to solve it. But there are alternatives. Both the United States and Mexico need to look beyond the idea that drug abuse is simply a law-enforcement problem, solvable through arrests, prosecution and restrictions on supply. We must together attack it with public health policies and education.

We still have time to persuade our young people not to ruin their lives.

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George P. Shultz, a former secretary of the Treasury and secretary of state, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Pedro Aspe is a former secretary of finance in Mexico.

New York Times 

We have waged war on drugs for a century. So who won? – Alex Wodak. 

Extrajudicial killings in the Philippines show how prohibition has made a global problem far worse.

So far, with the exception of praise from the US president, Donald Trump, there has been strong international condemnation of the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, including from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The United Nations human rights council voted 45-1to urge the Philippines to desist.

The unpalatable fact for policymakers everywhere is that extrajudicial killings of people who use drugs would never occur without the sanction of a global drug prohibition, a system that started with an international meeting convened by the US in Shanghai in 1909. A series of such meetings culminated in three international drug treaties (in 1961, 1971 and 1988) approved by almost every nation. The US president Richard Nixon intensified what he called the “war on drugs” in 1971 to help him win re-election in 1972 despite the deeply unpopular Vietnam war.

Global drug prohibition was expected to reduce the international drug market and make it less dangerous. But this is the opposite of what happened. Instead, production and consumption of drugs such as heroin and cocaine increased and their price fell by 80% over a quarter of a century. More than 100 new psychoactive drugs are identified within the EU every year, some of them much more dangerous than older drugs.

Drug prohibition was also supposed to protect the health and wellbeing of communities. But drug-related deaths, disease, violence and corruption have in many places increased rather than decreased. In Australia, where I spent three decades providing alcohol and drug treatment and advocating public health and human rights , while based in a Sydney teaching hospital, the rate of heroin overdose deaths – allowing for the growth in the population over time – increased 55-fold between 1964 and 1997.

It isn’t that the world has not implemented its war on drugs the right way. A war on drugs will always fail. When correctional authorities can’t keep drugs out of prisons, how can we expect drugs to be kept out of our cities and suburbs? When 1kg of heroin or cocaine multiplies in price several hundred-fold from its country of origin to its city of destination, how can we stop it from being transported? When drug traffickers are better resourced than police, how can we expect our authorities to stop drugs being trafficked.

In the past few years, former world leaders – and even some in office – have started calling for drug law reform. The essential elements are clear. First, redefine drugs as primarily a health and social issue. Second, improve treatment. Third, start reducing and, where possible, eliminating sanctions for drug use and drug possession. Fourth, regulate as much of the drug market as possible, starting with recreational cannabis. And fifth, shrink extreme poverty, which exacerbates drug problems.

Clearly, global drug prohibition is starting to unravel.

Hitler noted the lack of an international response to the Ottoman government’s genocide of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1917 and that emboldened him to proceed to his own Holocaust of six million Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals.

It would be ironic as well as tragic if the extrajudicial killings of people who use drugs started to spread just when the international drug control system has started collapsing.

It should not take extrajudicial killings in the Philippines in 2017 to make the world realise that global drug prohibition has turned out to be an expensive way of making a bad problem much worse. When Mikhail Gorbachev realised in the 1980s that communism in the USSR had failed, he called for glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring).

We now need more openness about drug policy, along with a major restructuring of our response to drugs. The only winners so far have been drug traffickers and the many politicians who found that bad policy made good politics. The longer change is delayed, the more difficult the transition will be.

The Guardian