War on drugs a global failure, London School of Economics says

The war on drugs must end and the battle to change international drug policies must begin, says a new report from the London School of Economics.

Influential report says global efforts to fight drugs have failed, and a new approach is needed

A number of influential economists advocated for a drastic change in the global war on drugs this week. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

The war on drugs must end and the battle to change international drug policies must begin, says a new report from the London School of Economics.

Five Nobel Prize-winning economists signed off on the 84-page report entitled Ending the Drug Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy authored by leading drug policy experts and supported by political figures from around the world calling for drug law reform.

The authors offer compelling evidence that achieving a “drug-free world” based solely on a prohibitionist model is an expensive and wasted effort. According to John Collins, co-ordinator of LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project and editor of the report, the drug policy experts' recommendations show how the war on drugs is a failure requiring a "major rethink of international drug policies."

Toronto health economist Dr. Claire de Oliveira, who works at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, agrees going in a new direction to achieve different results is needed to tackle drug policy reform.

“This is also the type of approach I take in my work and when proposing any policy recommendation – to implement policies that have been shown to work and that are based on rigorous, scientific evidence.”

Collateral damage

Based on rigorous economic and social analyses of primarily the U.S., Latin America, West Africa and Asia, the authors urge that global resources shift from prosecution and imprisonment to more “effective evidence-based polices” such as harm reduction, treatment and public health strategies. Similar recommendations are suggested for Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

A marijuana plant on display during a rally on Parliament Hill in support of the legalization of pot, in Ottawa, June 5, 2004. Legislation to decriminalization the drug was before Parliament when then-prime minister Paul Martin called a federal election, putting an end to the bill. (Jim Young/Reuters)

The report also says the drug war epidemic has produced “negative outcomes and collateral damage.” Prohibition helps push illicit drug prices up exorbitantly compared to what they would cost in a legally controlled market. 

Current policies have helped push the black market drug trade to as much as $300 billion, and the 40 per cent of the world’s nine million prison inmates are jailed for drug-related offences — a figure that jumps to 59 per cent in the U.S. Moreover, between 70 and 85 per cent of American inmates are in need of substance abuse treatment. 

'Drug-free' world idealistic

The report emphasizes that while prohibition holds some value in decreasing drug dependence, the harm to society is gravely outweighed due to violence, government corruption and collateral damage associated with the drug war, especially in drug producing countries like Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala.

Dr. Benedikt Fischer, the Applied Public Health Research Chair and professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University in B.C. thinks prohibition is an outdated weapon to fight the modern war on drugs.

“The advocates of prohibition had about a century to prove that their approach is actually effective and we’re still waiting for the positive evidence," he says. “I think it’s fair game to now say, look let’s give some alternative approaches a chance and on an evidence base, not based on ideology." 

Fischer also says the argument that decriminalization leads to more drug use is a fallacy, and he points to the world's most popular drug — marijuana — as an example.

“Everyone that wants to use cannabis is using cannabis today," he says. "[There's no] evidence that there are people who are waiting just for this to be regulated, then all of a sudden will decide that they will now start using.”

Benefits to decriminalization

Even though Ottawa is considering making pot possession a ticketable offence (not a criminal one) Canada still lags the world on the issue of decriminalization.

Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, says governments, including Canada, need to rethink their drug policies.

"For too long, they overemphasized a sort of failed policy approach of prohibition and a failed policy of criminalization of people who use drugs," he says. 

The report says decriminalization would cut incarceration and health-care costs for taxpayers everywhere. Countries with the harshest drug laws tend to have higher incarceration rates and higher HIV infection rates. Of the one million HIV-positive people in America, almost a quarter of them are in jail every year — which costs U.S. prisons $25 million a year for medical treatment, the report notes.

“This report clearly says we’re spending way too much, we’re over-prioritizing expenditures on enforcement and we need to look at scaling up a broader array of public health interventions … to improve the health of Canadians that have drug problems,” MacPherson says.

Harm reduction — a possible solution

MacPherson says society needs to stop merely jailing its drug users.

“Implementing a public health approach globally," he says, "you would see a shift in resources, a shift in outcomes and fewer people incarcerated, fewer criminalized and you would see a much more positive outcome.”

Fischer agrees that harm reduction is only part of the larger picture in minimizing drug dependence. “No one can pretend that these problems will entirely disappear, but the assumption of a fundamentally different public health-oriented approach is that a lot of these problems will be significantly reduced to the benefit of both users and society at large.”

Change takes time

The LSE report is a primer to the conversation on global drug reform policy for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs 2016, the main policy making arm of the UN.

MacPherson hopes the report leads to a frank global debate on drug policies everywhere. 

“It really is an opportunity to have a very open, honest, evidenced and informed discussion about the way forward post-2016,” he says.

Until then, Fischer advocates a slow and steady approach to drug reform.

"The LSE report emphasizes advocating for regulatory experiments, [so] we need to experiment in a very cautious and sensible way to give these alternative approaches a chance."


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