Here’s Why Drug Policy Reform Is Gaining Momentum

How do governments know drug enforcement is working? Generally by measuring seizures, arrests, and convictions—based on the assumption that the more drugs are confiscated, and the more drug users and dealers are imprisoned, the fewer drugs will be available.

That assumption appears to be wrong.

A new study by the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy finds that despite a tremendous increase in seizures, prices actually fell for most illegal drugs over the past 20 years—while purity increased. This raises serious questions about the effectiveness of international law enforcement efforts to reduce drug supply.

The study, supported by the Open Society Foundations and published in the British Medical Journal (Open Access Edition), reviewed indicators of drug supply in consumer markets such as Europe, the United States, and Australia, and drug seizures in those areas in addition to drug-producing regions such as Latin America, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia.

In the United States, there was a 465 percent increase in the quantity of marijuana seized between 1990 and 2010, and an 86 percent drop in price. At the same time, the potency of marijuana in the United States increased by over 160 percent.

Similarly, in Europe, even though the quantity of cocaine confiscated rose by 137 percent between 1995 and 2009, the price fell by 51 percent. What’s worse, in addition to being cheaper, drugs are actually stronger than at any time in the past two decades.

If the goal of global illicit drug policy is to reduce supply and demand, it has failed to achieve those objectives.

Given the experience of the past two decades, it is hard to imagine how the goals of drug prohibition can be achieved under the current scenario. Based on this report and the extensive and growing literature preceding it, it appears as though enacting some form of state-based regulation that takes a public health (rather than criminal justice) approach to the issue of drug use is likely the best way to increase safety and reduce drug-related problems experienced by communities.

Implicit in such an approach is the need for governments to prioritize measures that evaluate the effectiveness of policies based on how they impact drug-related harms (like the number of overdose deaths or the incidence of HIV transmission) as opposed to simply relying on the amount of drugs that are seized each year.

Our current drug strategies are failing. It’s time we did something differently.

Read more about the study from the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.

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Familes and Friends for Drug Law Reform have been trying to get governments to realise this in Australia for many years. This report is very welcome.

Thanks Marion! Best of luck to you and all our friends in Australia!

Not only has the drug market been expanding for decades, but drug prohibition has not protected the community either. Deaths, disease, crime, violence, corruption and threats to national security have been getting steadily worse. Plan A doesn't work. Time to think about Plan B

Thanks Alex. And thanks to people like you we have the evidence to prove that our current drug policies have a negative impact on public health and security. Keep up the great work!

Plan B hopefully cannot be to far away. Evidence like the associated problems is growing steadily. Time for the political heads to remove themselves from the sand and listen to experts(like yourself) and from the variety of fields that are endorsing significant changes to our current wastage of resources in fighting a war that cannot be won

It will be very interesting to know what percentage of key / high level politicians have drug addictions, that way one can show that the same people who make drug enforcement laws are also guilty of the same offense themselves.


Thanks Sam. This gets tricky in that it requires us to ask, 'what is a drug?' Do we count tobacco or alcohol? It also requires us to ask if addiction is the only measure?

In all likelihood politicians have experimented at roughly the same rates as everyone else. So indeed they probably have been guilty of the same offenses. But most did not become problematic users -- as the majority don't -- and that is worth looking into. Was it because they had education, housing, careers, etc.? If that's the case let's make sure we also focus on social structures so that people who experiment do not fall through the cracks and into problematic situations.

Some things should last forever, such as "JUST SAY NO"...a coalition of parents/families organized in local communities anti-drugs (war on drugs) efforts.

Yeah you se how well that work?
Unregulated free flow of drugs on the streets.
Here in Norway i cant get liquor after 6 pm,
But drugs i can get delivered on my door any time of the day. And some dealers sell to kids, it was more hash around in high school than alcohol...
The government cant even keep drugs out of jail!
So just how well does the war on drugs work?

First of all, I´d want to state that I´m against the current war on drugs.

Having said that and after reading the paper, I´m sorry to say, but this study does not give any evidence to conclude that the current drug policy does or does not work.
Firstly, this study does not show any trace of causality. What you have is two time series that seems to be highly (negative) correlated (not a foundation to draw any conclusions at all).
Secondly, the study assume perfect markets. This must also be considered as a strong assumtion, particularly when we discuss the drug market. There is a reason why we talk about "the Cali drug cartel".
This leads me to the third comment, the study does not discuss alternative explanations to the changes over time. Can there be a variable Z that explains both the higher quality and the lower prices? One feasible such a variable is changes in how well the drug market works. (And with well I of course mean in the pure economic perspective).

So, if we have a situation were the drug market has gone from a monopoly/cartel/"monopolistic compeptetive" situation in the early 1990s to a more competetive market during the 2000 (maybe as an effect of stricter rules and more police interventions), you´d end up in a situation were the drugdealers makes less of a profit having to compete for the consumers. A seller can the compete with two factors; a better product or lower price or a mix of those two, hence what the study finds.

This is just a hypothesis, and it´s probably impossible to get hold of retailprices from the drug runners. But it could be measured with some good proxy variables that correlates with higher levels of competition. For example: street level wages for drug dealers, drugrelated crimes (Homicides, murders etc.).

I find It a bit strange that the paper does not take "the market" into account. How a market works and what players on that market is willing to do to maintain a monopoly situation, is rather well described in the HBO serie "The Wire".

Thank you very much to the authors of this update on futile and dangerous affect of the war on drugs.

To answer kristian persson’s comment above: please find and read article in the American Heritage magazine of February-March 1993 (20 years ago!), “What should we do about Drugs?” by two scholars, Ethan A. Nadelmann of Princeton University, now of and David T. Courtwright of the University of North Florida. You will have a better understanding that current article is an update of ongoing discussion.

Comment on Sam Bhattacharya, above, re “high level politicians’” behavior: when you hear Bill Clinton’s remarks: “never inhale” on “never had a sexual relationship with that woman,” you definitely wonder what else they are doing becides signing devastating drug enforcement laws?

The main tragedy of the War on Drugs is that it has destroyed many lives of innocent people who are wrongfully convicted, incarcerated, or dead; or their families suffered from drug warriors’ actions. The alternative to drug war is decriminalization, taxation and healthcare. Drug war, or Prohibition, was a failed experiment, similar to the experiment of prohibitive social structures, such as Soviet Union. It may only hold for a few generations, until the cruelty of it and devastating consequences are realized.


And your point is?

Having spent several years as an employee in both the penal system and rehabilitation, I´m quite familiar with the ongoing discussion. In some countries this has been a ongoing discussion far longer. For example the 1980-discussion between the different strategies in Denmark and Sweden.

My point, as a scholar (a word which was peculiar that you seemed forced to use in reference to the article of 93) in economics, was that an analysis of the effects of the war on drugs, should not exclude an analysis of changes in market power.

Why, you ask... Firstly, not to look ingnorant when confronted with a market hypotheses from those in favour of a war on drugs, let´s call it academic self defence. Second, and probably most important since it has to do with real human beings and real suffering, more fierce competition, drug wars, leads to more negative effects on individuals, families and society when "drug gangs" compete over market shares: Homicides,newly released and families having to pay drug debts that detained build up while incarcerated, etc.

Leading to the exact argument you use in the latter part of you reply.

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