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Why We Need Drug Policy Reform

  • Last Update
  • April 2019
People carrying a sign
Caravan for Peace, a month-long campaign to protest the brutal drug war in Mexico and the US, ended in Washington D.C. on September 10, 2012. The caravan had started in Tijuana, Mexico with about 250 participants. © Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Current drug policies are failing. After 50 years of the war on drugs, the supply and use of drugs hasn’t just increased—it’s created a massive black market that contributes to violence, conflict, and corruption. Throughout the world, poorly designed drug policies, the criminalization of drug users and other low-level actors, and harsh enforcement measures has fueled social marginalization, health crises, and mass incarceration. 

It’s time for a new approach.

What Is the War on Drugs?

The war on drugs refers to coordinated campaigns by governments over the last 50 years to enforce the prohibition of drugs largely through the coercive suppression of production and criminalization of drug use, possession, and supply. To quote the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of world leaders and intellectuals who promote evidence-based drug policy reforms at international, national, and regional levels:

When the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs came into being 50 years ago, and when President Nixon launched the U.S. government’s war on drugs 40 years ago, policymakers believed that harsh law enforcement action against those involved in drug production, distribution and use would lead to an ever-diminishing market in controlled drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis, and the eventual achievement of a “drug free world.” In practice, the global scale of illegal drug markets—largely controlled by organized crime—has grown dramatically over this period.

How Have Punitive Drug Policies Failed?

Harsh drug policies haven’t just failed to reduce the availability and use of drugs but have created a whole set of new problems.

  • Drug-related violence: The Mexican government estimates that 34,000 people have been killed in drug-related murders from 2006–2010.
  • Health epidemics: According to the CDC, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2017, making it a leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. Additionally, among the estimated 12 million people who inject drugs globally, 1 in 10 is living with HIV. An estimated 10 million people who inject drugs have chronic hepatitis C virus infection. Treatments are available and new infections are avoidable, but “tough-on-drugs” laws prevent access to life-saving services, such as needle exchange and opioid substitution therapy, and push drug users in need of support away from help and treatment.
  • Mass incarceration: The number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses has skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 469,545 in 2015. At the state level, the number of people in prison for drug offenses has increased 10 times since 1980. Globally, one in five prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, mostly for mere personal possession.
  • Waste: Policing and interdiction of illicit drugs globally costs over $100 billion annually [PDF]. This is money that could be spent on improving public health responses, increasing access to social services, and expanding diversion programs instead.

What Would Happen If We Ended the War on Drugs?

In countries that have introduced alternative drug policies such as decriminalization of all drugs or regulation of adult access for cannabis, crime and addiction did not increase—and there were important benefits.

In Portugal, where use of all drugs was decriminalized in 2001, drug use did not spike as some predicted. But there were major increases in the number of people accessing treatment and other services, in addition to a huge drop in drug-related HIV transmission. From 1999 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in Portugal for drug offenses fell 44 percent [PDF].

Instead of making people safer, punitive drug policies often stimulate more violence and instability. In the six years that followed the Mexican government’s 2006 declaration of an all-out, militarized war on drugs, more than 250,000 people died because of drug-related violence.

What Kind of Policies Could We Enact Instead?

The failure of the war on drugs has led to exploration of new ideas and alternative models including:

  • Decriminalization: While drugs remain illegal and drug use is a prohibited behavior, violations are considered misdemeanors or administrative offenses, and the punishment is more like what happens in many countries when one is caught speeding or not wearing a seatbelt.
  • Regulation: In a regulated drug market, the supply and purchase of drugs is permitted and legal under specific circumstances. Regulation can take different forms and entail various levels of control. Some models include medical prescription, a government-run monopoly on supply and access, nonprofit user collectives, and government licensed private operators.    

What Are the Open Society Foundations Doing to Help?

Through grant making, advocacy and communications, research and dialogue, the Open Society Foundations have supported reforms that will promote public health, security, sustainable development, and human rights. We and our partners research the impact of current drug policies, as well as advocate for alternative approaches that significantly reduce or end the criminalization of low-level drug offense and those that aim to shrink the black market while advancing public health, community safety, and increasing government control.

Groups we support include:

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