Why We Need Drug Policy Reform

Current drug policies are failing. Worse, they’re causing enormous harm to individuals and communities. Around the world, poorly designed drug laws that seek to punish production, possession, use, and even dependence have fueled violence, instability, and health crises.

It’s time for a new approach.

What is the “war on drugs”?

The war on drugs refers to concerted efforts by governments over the last 50 years to prohibit and penalize drug use, possession, transportation, sale, and production. To quote the Global Commission on Drug Policy:

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.

Why shouldn’t we punish people for using or producing drugs?

The fact is that punitive laws have not successfully reduced use or availability of drugs in the vast majority of countries. For example, as the number of people in U.S. jails and prisons on drug-related charges almost doubled from the late 1980s to today, use of illicit drugs actually increased and street drug prices plummeted.

Even worse, the collateral damage from these laws has been disastrous. Impacts include:

  • Drug-related violence: According to some estimates, hundreds of thousands of murders in the Americas can be attributed to violence between criminal groups fighting for territory and power made possible by the drug trade.
  • Health epidemics: In Eastern Europe and Central Asia the number of people living with HIV has almost tripled since 2000, and injecting drug use has been the leading route of transmission. These cases are entirely preventable, but “tough-on-drugs” laws prevent access to life-saving services such as needle exchange and opioid substitution therapy, and drive addicted drug users away from help and treatment.
  • Mass incarceration: The total U.S. prison population has more than quadrupled in the last 30 years. Over half of U.S. federal inmates today are in prison on drug convictions—nearly a quarter of all incarcerated Americans. In many other parts of the world, including Thailand, Brazil, and Iran, between 25 and 50 percent of all prisoners have been convicted of drug offenses. 
  • Waste of law enforcement resources: In 2011, someone in the United States was arrested for marijuana every 42 seconds. New York City alone spent $75 million in 2010 to arrest and jail people for small amounts of marijuana.

If we stop punishing people for drug use, won’t there be more crime and addiction?

The vast majority of research indicates that, in countries that have introduced alternative drug policies, crime and addiction did not increase—and there were important benefits.

In Portugal, where use of all drugs was decriminalized, 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. The proportion of drug offenders in the Portuguese prison system fell from 44 percent in 1999 to 21 percent in 2008.

Moreover, attempts to arrest drug users and sellers and bring the multi-billion dollar trade under control can have the opposite effect. Crackdowns often exacerbate violence by destabilizing illegal markets and informal controls, as was the case when Mexico’s government waged an all-out war on drugs in 2006. In the following six years, more than 60,000 people died in drug-related violence as groups—including the Mexican government—fought to fill the power vacuum and take control.

What are the alternatives?

The failure of the war on drugs has led to increasing consideration of alternative models including:

  • Decriminalization: The removal of criminal sanctions for minor drug offenses. In some cases civil sanctions, such as fines, are imposed instead of jail time.
  • Depenalization: The retention of drug offenses as a crime but with discretionary enforcement based on practical considerations and community needs.
  • Regulated Access: Government control of illegal drugs in order to experiment with a range of options including, in some cases, a commercial market for substances such as marijuana, or tightly controlled availability for drugs that pose greater risk of harm.

There is also widespread recognition that drug use is a public health issue. This may require less concentration of money and resources on criminal justice and it means a greater role for public health professionals in policymaking. 

What are the Open Society Foundations doing to improve drug policy?

Through grantmaking and programmatic efforts, the Open Society Foundations have supported drug policy reform that promotes public health, security, and human rights. We and our partners research the impact of current drug policies, as well as alternative approaches that are yielding more positive results. For example, we produced a series of reports on successful health-based drug policies from around the world.

In the United States and elsewhere, we support innovative local efforts to establish more effective and humane responses to addiction and poverty-driven involvement with drugs.  

In 2000, a law was introduced in Poland which made possession of any amount of drugs punishable by up to three years in prison. Over the next decade, the numbers of arrests for possession rose tenfold, and more than a half of these were of people aged 24 and younger. With Open Society support, a network of NGOs was created that opened the debate on drug policy in the country. Our partners in Poland helped change the drug law in late 2011.

We work to engage new voices in drug policy reform debates by funding projects like Count the Costs, which seeks to reduce the unintended costs of the war on drugs and encourage a cost-benefit analysis of current policies. Count the Costs has been endorsed by leading nongovernmental organizations including Human Rights Watch, Health Poverty Action, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, the Prison Governors Association, Penal Reform International, and the Child Rights International Network.

These efforts have served as a platform for dialogue between national policymakers and other concerned people about how governments can improve health and human rights by introducing better drug policies.