Why We Need Drug Policy Reform
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 illicit market that contributes to violence, amplifies conflict, and breeds corruption. Throughout the world, poorly designed drug policies, the criminalization of people who use drugs, farmers and other low-level actors, and harsh enforcement measures have 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. As the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of eminent world leaders and intellectuals who promote evidence-based drug policy reforms at international, national, and regional levels, said in 2011:
When the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs came into being  years ago, and when President Nixon launched the U.S. government’s war on drugs  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: In the 16 years following former Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s pledge to eliminate drug trafficking organizations through the militarization of public security, almost 300,000 people have been killed; 40,000 people have disappeared, and 330,000 others have been internally displaced fleeing drug-related violence. In the Philippines, more than 29,000 people have been killed in drug-war killings since President Duterte’s election in 2016. These numbers continue to rise.
- Health epidemics: According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2019, making it a leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. Since 1999, more than 850,000 Americans have died from a drug overdose. 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 430,926 in 2019. At the state level, the number of people in prison for drug offenses has increased 10 times since 1980. More than 1,500,000 drug-related arrests were made in the US in 2019. In Senegal, 31% of female detainees are incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Globally, one in five prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, mostly for mere personal possession. In the UK, black people are nine times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched for drugs, despite using drugs at a lower rate. In the US, Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana, despite similar usage rates.
- Death penalty and executions: There are at least 3,000 people currently on death row for drug offenses worldwide. Over 4,000 people were executed for drug offenses between 2008-2018 (3,900 were in Iran alone).
- 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. The U.S. government has been the main ally to implement this strategy. Between 1990 and 2015 Colombian Police and U.S. contractors sprayed glyphosate onto almost 5,000,000 acres of Colombian territory.
- Gender Disparities: Women engaged in drug-related economies face disproportionate punishment and stigma and are over-represented within carceral systems.
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-use cannabis, crime and addiction did not increase—and there were important benefits.
In Portugal, the use and possession of all drugs were decriminalized in 2001. Drug use since has remained below the EU average. There were also 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 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. Treatment services can be scaled up and people are more inclined to seek support without fear of reprisal.
- 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 grantmaking, advocacy and communications, research, and dialogue, the Open Society Foundations have supported reforms that promote public health, security, sustainable development, and human rights. We and our partners research the impact of current drug policies and advocate for alternative approaches that significantly reduce or end the criminalization of low-level drug offenses. We support policies that aim to shrink the illicit drug market while advancing public health, community safety, and increasing government control.
Groups we support include:
- CIDE, Transnational Institute, and Humanas support policy efforts to ensure that women rural farmers and indigenous peoples are at the table when drug policy is being made.
- With support from multiple UN agencies and the World Health Organization, The International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy at the University of Essex has developed guidelines to align the implementation of drug policies with human rights obligations.
- The Drug Policy Alliance and Transform International both coordinate and support campaigns for cannabis regulation for medical and recreational purposes.
- The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and the International Drug Policy Consortium both support the decriminalization movement in countries such as Canada, Thailand, Zimbabwe, and Uruguay.
- Harm Reduction International advocates to end the death penalty for drug offenses.
- The West Africa Drug Policy Network promoted the decriminalization bill in Ghana [PDF], ensuring civil society participation in the proceedings.
Three Decades of Drug Policy Reform Work
Over the past 30 years, Open Society has been the largest philanthropic supporter of efforts to reform drug policy and promote harm reduction around the world. This is a timeline of the Foundations’ pathbreaking work.
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