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Assessing Progress in the War on Drugs

The global war on drugs is a failure, according to a recent report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The report says the war on drugs officially started 50 years ago with the creation of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. And “while accurate estimates of global consumption across the entire 50-year period are not available, an analysis of the last 10 years alone shows a large and growing market,” according to the report.

Even though much of what the report highlights may be drawn from existing data, the array of individuals who endorsed the recent findings is noteworthy, says Danny Kushlick, head of external affairs for Transform Drug Policy in the United Kingdom. His organization has a Web site named Count the Costs, which cites the unintended costs of the drug war, such as fueling conflict and wasteful spending on drug law enforcement. Kushlick points out that many other organizations and advocates have proclaimed that the global war on drugs has been lost for many of the same reasons highlighted by the Global Commission.

With regard to this latest report, Kushlick says that support of senior political figures could make a difference. To have a former secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, support a call for experiments in legal regulation of drugs alongside former United States Secretary of State George Schultz, entrepreneur Richard Branson, four former Latin American presidents, and the sitting president of Greece “enables engagement of the higher level policy makers” says Kushlick.

Sylvia Longmire, drug war analyst and author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars, says the report’s findings may have been a bit over the top. However, she agreed with many of the report’s recommendations, among them decreased sentences for some lower-level drug offenders, and exploring decriminalization of certain drugs, such as cannabis (marijuana). 

The report spotlights Portugal, which legalized all previously outlawed drugs back in 2001. Although drug use has slightly increased in the country overall since the decriminalization, heroin use has dropped and the burden on law enforcement has been reduced, according to the report. The report also notes that other nations that have decriminalized cannabis have not experienced an increase in drug use in comparison with nations where cannabis use is still illegal.

One challenge in fighting global drug use and trade is that the war on drugs has become securitized, according to Kushlick, who uses the term in a nonfinancial context. “Securitization means that a government identifies something as an existential threat, makes it a security issue, and lifts it above the normal policy-making arena,” he explains.

Kushlick says there are two drug control regimes: one is securitized, the other is not. The nonsecuritized regime controls alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical drugs and the ways they are sold, dispensed, and prescribed. The securitized regime covers the nonmedical use of cannabis, coca, and opium-based drugs as well as so-called designer drugs, like ecstasy.

“These have been assessed as a ‘threat’ to the health and welfare of humanity, and, in fact, as a threat to the existence of humanity, and their production, supply, and use for nonmedical purposes [has been] made illegal,” says Kushlick.
It is the latter that constitutes the initial war on drugs, he says. But the result of that first war has been the creation of a criminal market “whose value is estimated at up to $320 billion a year. This criminal opportunity has helped create vast criminal empires that are assessed as a threat to nation states. This has resulted in a second war on drugs, though in reality, it is a war on [organized] crime,” he explains.

Kushlick says that this leads to unintended consequences. Countries end up fighting an ongoing security threat rather than achieving its original goal of lowering the population’s drug use.

The United States government’s Office of National Drug Control Policy is opposed to any change in policy. The agency released a statement strongly condemning the report’s decriminalization recommendation, “because illicit drug use is demonstrably harmful to public health. And decriminalization, not to mention legalization, causes the use of illegal drugs to become more prevalent.”

Longmire has warned that legalizing drugs like marijuana won’t necessarily end the cartels and violence in places like Mexico, due to the wide variety of criminal activities the various drug trafficking organizations are involved in. Eliminating the illegal drug trade into America would only take out a portion of their operations.

A recent RAND Corporation report that examined the potential effects of legalizing marijuana in California estimated that only a small portion, 15 to 26 percent, of Mexican drug trafficking organization revenue was garnered from trafficking marijuana into the United States. Longmire says that “it might knock some of the smaller, less efficient players out of the game,” but “it’s definitely not going to end the drug war.”

There is also a question of repercussions that marijuana or drug decriminalization might have on the workplace. Courts in Oregon and Washington have sided with employers in recent lawsuits over marijuana use and its effect on the workplace. However, the issue is far from settled. “It would be particularly problematic for employers at a number of different levels,” according to Eugene Ferraro, CPP, PCI, CEO and president of Business Controls, a security and technology company headquartered in Denver.

Ferraro, who has a background in human resources, says that most state laws would permit testing for marijuana even if the drug becomes legal, under “on the job impairment” and “just cause” or “reasonable suspicion” testing. However, Ferraro says that many states have requirements that employers must provide rehabilitation to individuals who test positive for drugs. If marijuana legalization leads to more employees using the drug, employers might be forced to rehabilitate more people, causing more inconvenience and higher costs. If marijuana were legalized, he says, it’s doubtful “that the states would suddenly go ‘oh yeah, we’ve got to go back and change all of our laws relative to drug testing,’” explains Ferraro.

Experts agree, however, that there is no single answer to the drug problem, emphasizes Longmire. “What people don’t understand is that it’s a global issue, and it’s extremely complex.”