Skip to main content

A Pivotal Decade for the Movement to End the “War on Drugs”

A woman walking through a field of tall marijuana plants
A farmer walks through a marijuana plantation in the mountains of Cauca, Colombia, on May 11, 2010. © Carlos Villalon/Redux

Despite nearly a half-century of destructive and ineffective policy initiatives, the “war on drugs” rages on.

In Afghanistan and Colombia, opium poppy and coca cultivation are at some of the highest levels on record. Traffickers and other high-ranking actors in the illicit markets are as wealthy and powerful as ever. Meanwhile, the already-marginalized people who grow these plants—who are mostly peasants and small-scale farmers—continue to be the ones bearing the weight of criminalization.

The situation in the United States is hardly better. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 72,000 people died because of an overdose in 2017 alone. For perspective, that is a higher death toll than all U.S. military casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq wars, combined. Yet many legislators in places such as Ohio and Maine are still resistant to the kind of public health interventions—such as supervised injection facilities—that have a proven track record of saving lives.

In countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, meanwhile, policymakers aren’t merely accepting a failed status quo—they’re actually going backward. Following the example set by the Philippines’ “war on drugs,” some nations are responding to policy failure with little more than vicious and deadly brute force.

Discouraging as this backsliding is, it isn’t the whole story. Positive changes are underway in the most unlikely of places. South Africa recently decriminalized the consumption of cannabis at home. Citizen action and grassroots mobilization in the United Kingdom lead to the government legalizing medical marijuana, and a range of countries, such as Ireland and Ghana, are considering the benefits of the decriminalization of drugs following the documented successes of Portugal’s progressive policies.

As the number of human rights abuses in name of the “war on drugs” have risen, so, too, has a robust network of drug policy reform advocates from around the world, all of whom are ready to challenge these human rights violations and push for better, smarter, and more humane solutions.

Over the last decade, the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program and its grantees have proudly supported these brave individuals and civil society groups. And together, we’ve won significant victories for the reform movement—and for the larger project of reducing the role of criminalization in drug control policy as much as possible while simultaneously advancing public safety and health.

In the face of backlash, in other words, the reform community is stronger than ever. And as we look back over the last 10 years of global drug policies, we can see four crucial areas where great strides have been made which the movement can build on in the years to come.

Ending the death penalty for drug-related offenses

According to Harm Reduction International, executions for drug-related offenses have more than halved since 2015, falling from 718 in 2015 to 280 in 2017. This has been done, in part, through the tenacious work of organizations such as Indonesia’s Community Legal Aid Institute (LBH Masyarakat), a group of lawyers who have devoted themselves to defending individuals placed on the execution list for drug charges. In Indonesia, Malaysia, and around the world, groups such as these have won clemency for many of the accused while increasing media attention and mobilizing political pressure. Their work has saved thousands of lives. In countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, where we’ve seen the re-establishment of capital punishment for nonviolent drug offenses, we’ve also seen a large and vocal outcry from activists, which in itself is a testament to how far the drug policy movement has come.

Integrating the rights of indigenous peoples into the broader movement

An increased focus on how the movement for indigenous rights can work together with the movement for drug policy reform has paid significant dividends, too. In Spain, for example, a Colombian immigrant who imported 6.3 grams of coca leaf powder (called mambe) was falsely accused of trafficking cocaine. With the support of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Service, and the Transnational Institute, the plaintiff, Roberto Castro, beat the case by relying on expert testimony regarding indigenous practices involving coca. This innovation led to the setting of an unexpected, but potentially momentous, legal precedent. This shift in thinking can be seen all the way in Colombia, where coca industrialization efforts have empowered coca leaf–growing communities, and where the drug policy movement’s ability to provide economic, social, and legal support to reformers has only increased.

Decriminalization and legal reform

Drug policy reform has gained the most ground in decriminalization and the legal regulation of cannabis over the past decade, with Canada, Uruguay, and 10 U.S. states legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use since 2013. On the African continent, Zimbabwe has followed Lesotho’s lead in legalizing the production of medical marijuana, and momentum is growing globally, with Luxemburg moving towards regulating cannabis for recreational purposes, while Thailand appears poised to become the first country in Asia to legalize medical marijuana. Years of work by the Drug Policy Alliance, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and, the International Drug Policy Consortium are central to several of those successes.

Influencing culture and challenging the parameters of public debate

Over the last decade, the drug policy reform debate has moved from behind closed doors into the public domain. The Global Commission for Drug Policy, an esteemed body of former heads of state, senior diplomats, and prominent business people has led the way in talking openly and seriously about alternatives to current and harmful drug policies. The public is also taking notice. On June 26, 2018, in more than 200 cities in nearly100 countries, the “Support. Don’t Punish.” campaign called on policymakers to implement drug policies based on health, human rights, and sustainable development.

Increasingly, the movement has also focused on using art and culture to reach new audiences and change the conversation. The Museum of Drug Policy project, which features a series of pop-up museums in cities around the world, has brought together artists, activists, drug users, politicians, and the public at large, and inspired difficult but necessary conversations around drug use in our society and drug policy reform.

Of course, there is still much work to do. But in this reactionary time, advocates for sustainable and humane drug policies­, centered on harm reduction, human rights, and sustainable development, have joined together to provide a common defense and to continue building on the progress made to date. The Global Drug Policy Program has been honored to be a part of this united front, and we remain committed to supporting radical solutions, erasing stigma, and doing the crucial work needed to ensure a world where the “war on drugs” is just an unpleasant memory.

Read more

Subscribe to updates about Open Society’s work around the world