Seven hidden costs of the ‘war on drugs’
The Transform Drug Policy Foundation recently informed me of Count the Costs: 50 years of the war on drugs, a new online research tool developed to educate people on the need for drug law reform.
Comprising pf groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and the Beckley Foundation, International Doctors for Healthy Drug Policies, Count the Costs highlights seven key costs to society under current draconian drug policy initiatives. This collaborative effort of global organisations coincides with the 50th anniversary of the enacting of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
They say the “war on drugs” undermines development, security and fuels conflict in many of the world’s most fragile regions and states. Using the examples of Colombia and Afghanistan, they explain how drug traffickers prefer to work in areas where there is little public infrastructure and where government officials (politicians, the military etc) can be kept at arm’s length, either through corruption or the threat of violence. With public infrastructure, such as roads, schools, and so forth, virtually non-existent, farmers have little option but drug production.
Second, while the war on drugs has in the past been promoted as a means of promoting public health by eliminating the availability of drugs and its use, Count the Costs provides ample evidence to the contrary.
Over the past 50 years, drug use has risen and prices of drugs have fallen. Furthermore, their analysis confirms that current policies have raised the risks associated with drug use. Drugs are cut with contaminants, and risky behaviours, such as injecting, are undertaken in unsupervised and unhygienic environments. As a result, users suffer from avoidable health problems.
Third, current drug laws ignore the human rights of drug users and the farming communities growing drug crops. In many countries, drug control efforts by governments have resulted in torture and ill-treatment by police, mass incarceration, executions, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and the denial of basic health services. Likewise, farmers in drug-producing countries face human rights violations as a result of drug crop eradication programs and the related criminalisation of certain indigenous cultural practices.
Fourth, the war on drugs also promotes discrimination against people who, through poverty, are forced into the drug trade. Stigma and discrimination is also often attached to those with criminal records, and, by default, to the children of drug-using parents.
Fifth, the literature points out that contemporary drug policies are the biggest factor generating crime and enriching criminals. In 2005, the UN estimated the illicit drug trade at $300 billion. The profits of this trade flow, untaxed, into the hands of unregulated and often violent criminals.
The sixth cost concerns deforestation and pollution. Aerial spraying and chemical eradication in environmentally sensitive places like the Andes and Amazon basin not only causes deforestation, but also encourages a “multiplier effect” whereby drug producers move to deforest new, uncontaminated areas for further cultivation. Unregulated drug production can lead to pollution connected to the disposal of toxic chemicals, used in crude processing of coca and opium, into local environments and waterways.
Finally, global spending, estimated at well over $100 billion, on a law enforcement model that does not work is a waste of taxpayer money. Rather than reducing production, supply and use of drugs, law enforcement initiatives have had the opposite result — a big criminal market. In turn, it has led to grave social and economic costs, through crime and ill health. These costs far exceed the billions spent on law enforcement.
As government budgets increase spending in the area of law enforcement and all of its corollaries — the courts, customs and border security, police and prisons — other areas, such as hospitals and schools, are being starved of funds. With this knowledge, it is now time for the politicians to wake up and begin implementing a set of constructive drug policies based on the facts.