United Nations – A report released Tuesday by the London School of Economics (LSE) depicts drug prohibition as a massive failure, a financial drain on economies and a violation of the basic human rights of citizens.
“The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage,” concluded the LSE’s Expert Panel on the Economics of Drug Policy, a group of 21 that includes five Nobel Prize-winning economists, former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz and Deputy Prime Minister of the UK Nick Clegg.
For years, opposition to drug prohibition has often been associated – accurately or not – with marginalised groups, either users themselves or the families of prisoners incarcerated under minimum sentencing guidelines.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
Now, economists – perhaps the least likely victims of the war on drugs but vital to its deconstruction – are weighing in.
“The question of the economics [of the drug war] have never really been gauged as strongly as it is being today,” Malinowska-Sempruch told IPS.
The report comes as more nations voice their displeasure with policies of interdiction that were hoisted upon them by powerful, conservative countries like the U.S.
In 2012, the heads of states of Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala delivered a statement to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asking for an “urgent” review of drug policy.
Last year, the Organisation of American States released a report that called for the easing of such policies and consideration of possibility of decriminalisation.
In New York for the 2013 U.N. General Assembly, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina called marijuana legalisation in Uruguay and the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington that year “visionary.”
And this past December, a leaked internal document containing draft recommendations from U.N. member states on drug policy showed many more willing to express their disquietude in private.
Failure by any measure
The LSE report found that policies of interdiction fail even their own narrow objectives.
“Evidence shows that drug prices have been declining while purity has been increasing,” wrote the authors.
The 100 billion dollars spent annually worldwide on law and order measures associated with drugs is not only largely wasted but ends up incurring bigger bills down the line.
One U.N study cited in the report found every dollar spent on opioid-substitution therapies (OST) like methadone “may yield a return of between four and seven dollars in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs and theft alone.”
When accounting for health care costs, “total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12:1.”
But where prohibition is favoured over harm reduction programmes, drug use can lead to public health crises.
Russia, one of the few countries than bans methadone, has an HIV rate more than double most western European countries. Last year, the Russian government reported 55,000 newly diagnosed HIV patients, 58 percent of whom were intravenous drug users.
In recently annexed Crimea, Russian authorities announced they will shut down OST services.
Draconian drug laws can have a punitive effect not only on citizens but on the entire workforce of a country.
In 2000, the Polish government criminalised the possession of even the smallest quantities of illicit drugs. Within a decade, more than 100,000 Poles had gained criminal records and now find themselves barred from public sector employment.
All the while, in the U.S., the private prison industry and defence contractors have profited handsomely from enforcement expenditures and the housing of prisoners – staggering numbers of them.
Between 1979 and 2009, the number of prisoners in the U.S grew by 480 percent to 2.2 million; 1 in 5 – and half in federal prison – are locked up on drug offences.
Reports like the LSE’s set the stage for a showdown in 2016, when the U.N. General Assembly will have a special session dedicated to the future of drug policy.
Last year, for the first time, a majority of U.S. citizens said they favoured the legalisation of marijuana. But in the U.S. and around the world, laws lag behind the evolution of mores.
Despite headlined-grabbing votes in Uruguay, Portugal and small parts of the U.S., the vast majority of an estimated 230 million drug users worldwide still reside in countries that schedule drugs based on two strict U.N. Conventions: the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances.
Still, the International Narcotics Control Board, an oversight body with quasi-judicial powers, is increasingly ignored by countries that see benefits from bucking the conventions.
“The conventions are just just a reflection of what states see them as,” says John Collins, coordinator of the LSE’s IDEAS International Drug Policy Project.
“They are realising that the conventions are a lot more flexible than previously interpreted,” Collins told IPS. “I think we are really reaching a tipping point.”
But while decades ago signing the conventions had little political fallout for member states, least of all for those – like the U.S. – who ghost-wrote them, unwinding their countless manifestations in trade agreements and international law will take more than a stroke of a pen.
Many smaller countries that are ill-affected by the war on drugs still prefer to risk their political capital on more cut and dry issues.
“The General Assembly in 2016 is a tremendous deal,” said Collins. “But I think what we should argue for more broadly is that the U.N. stop being a bully on this issue.”
“The main thing to look at is what member states are doing at a national and regional level. Let’s see how they react to cannabis regulation,” he added.