Why the Costly, Pointless War on Drugs Must Come to an End

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Why the Costly, Pointless War on Drugs Must Come to an End

A new report from the London School of Economics lays out the case against the counter-productive decades-long attack on recreational drugs.

A new report includes a call from some of the world’s leading economists, including five Nobel Prize winners, to end the “war on drugs” and experiment with alternative policies. (Credit: Report cover / LSE)

Quantifying the enormous harms of the “war on drugs” is a near-impossible task. How to begin calculating the health epidemics, the violence associated with illicit markets and tragedy of mass incarceration internationally?

The London School of Economics has attempted to begin counting the costs of the war on drugs in a new report, Ending the Drug Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy (pdf). The report includes a call from some of the world’s leading economists, including five Nobel Prize winners, to end the “war on drugs” and experiment with alternative policies.

They write: “It is time to end the ‘war on drugs’ and massively redirect resources towards effective evidence-based policies underpinned by rigorous economic analysis. The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage.”

These damages include increases in homicides related to drug markets. For example, as drug markets swell, so too does violence. The report finds, “[the] increase in the size of illegal drug markets observed between 1994 and 2008 (about 200 percent) explains roughly 25 percent of the current homicide rate in Colombia. This translates into about 3,800 more homicides per year on average that are associated with illegal drug markets and the war on drugs.”

Traditionally, the goal has been to utilise law enforcement and even the military to suppress the illicit market, but such strategies have major drawbacks. In Colombia, successful counter-narcotics programs only displaced the market elsewhere, for example shifting criminal gangs - and their associated violence - to Mexico, where the homicide rate increased threefold within a period of just four years.  

Even interdiction and drug seizures can have major unintended consequences.  The report notes that in Colombia, more efficient interdiction strategies “may account for 21.2 percent and 46 percent of the increase in homicides and drug related homicides, respectively, experienced in the north of Mexico.

This is not to say that there is no place for law enforcement or prohibition in global drug policy. The problem is with the pursuit of a “war on drugs” strategy that fails to recognise the limits of prohibition and results in a severe misallocation of resources towards ineffective and often counterproductive policies. Often these come at the expense of far more effective public health policies.

The implications are clear. There must be a drastic reallaction of focus and resources towards proven public health policies based on access to treatment and harm reduction. Such approaches are not only humane but cost effective. Treatment cost an average $1,583 per person but benefited society at the level of $11,487, a 7:1 ratio. There are even greater returns on harm reduction initiatives like substitution therapies, supervised drug consumption facilities and needle and syringe exchange services. 

One study cited in the report found that every dollar invested in opioid dependence treatment programs returned between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs and theft. When savings related to health care are included, total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12:1.

The report concludes that governments must drastically reallocate resources away from damaging and counterproductive policies based on punitive and enforcement led policies. It also calls for a shift away from a supply-oriented focus in producer and transit countries towards an illicit market impact-reduction focus. This means that states and the international community focus on ensuring population security, economic development and protecting human rights instead of blindly focusing on the quantities of narcotics seized or numbers of people arrested.

Finally, it calls for policymakers to pursue rigorously monitored policy and regulatory experimentation, as is currently underway in Uruguay, and the US states of Washington and Colorado, with cannabis regulation.

The list of Nobel laureates who endorsed the report includes, Professor Kenneth Arrow, Professor Thomas Schelling, Professor Vernon Smith and Professor Oliver Williamson. Other signatories include renowned economists, political scientists and human rights experts such as Professor Paul Collier, Professor Conor Gearty, Professor Danny Rodrik, Professor Jeffrey Sachs.

Signatories also include the LSE’s most recent Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Christopher Pissarides, the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Nick Clegg, Former US Secretary of State George Shultz, Former President of Poland Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Guatemala Luis Fernando Carrera Castro, the Health and Social Protection Minister of Colombia Alejandro Gaviria Uribe and the Former EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Dr. Javier Solana.

The report will be launched at a live event on May 7 at the London School of Economics, with Guatemala’s Minister of Interior, Mauricio López Bonilla. Guatemala’s President, Otto Pérez Molina, will be taking the report to the United Nations to directly influence policy discussions. He has been a leading figure in calling for a UN review of the drug control system, which will take place at a special session in 2016.

John Collins

John Collins is coordinator of the LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project.