By Ethan Nadelmann, Drug
Source: Foreign Policy (USA)
September/October 2007 Issue
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Prohibition has failed—again. Instead of treating the demand for
illegal drugs as a market, and addicts as patients, policymakers the
world over have boosted the profits of drug lords and fostered
narcostates that would frighten Al Capone. Finally, a smarter drug
control regime that values reality over rhetoric is rising to replace
the "war" on drugs.
"The Global War on Drugs Can Be Won"
No, it can’t. A "drug-free world," which the United Nations describes as
a realistic goal, is no more attainable than an "alcohol-free
world"—and no one has talked about that with a straight face since the
repeal of Prohibition in the United States in 1933. Yet futile rhetoric
about winning a "war on drugs" persists, despite mountains of evidence
documenting its moral and ideological bankruptcy. When the U.N. General
Assembly Special Session on drugs convened in 1998, it committed to
"eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the
coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008" and
to "achieving significant and measurable results in the field of demand
reduction." But today, global production and consumption of those drugs
are roughly the same as they were a decade ago; meanwhile, many
producers have become more efficient, and cocaine and heroin have become
purer and cheaper.
It’s always dangerous when rhetoric drives policy—and especially so
when "war on drugs" rhetoric leads the public to accept collateral
casualties that would never be permissible in civilian law enforcement,
much less public health. Politicians still talk of eliminating drugs
from the Earth as though their use is a plague on humanity. But drug
control is not like disease control, for the simple reason that there’s
no popular demand for smallpox or polio. Cannabis and opium have been
grown throughout much of the world for millennia. The same is true for
coca in Latin America. Methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs can be
produced anywhere. Demand for particular illicit drugs waxes and wanes,
depending not just on availability but also fads, fashion, culture, and
competition from alternative means of stimulation and distraction. The
relative harshness of drug laws and the intensity of enforcement matter
surprisingly little, except in totalitarian states. After all, rates of
illegal drug use in the United States are the same as, or higher than,
Europe, despite America’s much more punitive policies.
"We Can Reduce the Demand for Drugs"
Good luck. Reducing the demand for illegal drugs seems to make sense.
But the desire to alter one’s state of consciousness, and to use
psychoactive drugs to do so, is nearly universal—and mostly not a
problem. There’s virtually never been a drug-free society, and more
drugs are discovered and devised every year. Demand-reduction efforts
that rely on honest education and positive alternatives to drug use are
helpful, but not when they devolve into unrealistic, "zero tolerance"
As with sex, abstinence from drugs is the best way to avoid trouble, but
one always needs a fallback strategy for those who can’t or won’t
refrain. "Zero tolerance" policies deter some people, but they also
dramatically increase the harms and costs for those who don’t resist.
Drugs become more potent, drug use becomes more hazardous, and people
who use drugs are marginalized in ways that serve no one.
The better approach is not demand reduction but "harm reduction."
Reducing drug use is fine, but it’s not nearly as important as reducing
the death, disease, crime, and suffering associated with both drug
misuse and failed prohibitionist policies. With respect to legal drugs,
such as alcohol and cigarettes, harm reduction means promoting
responsible drinking and designated drivers, or persuading people to
switch to nicotine patches, chewing gums, and smokeless tobacco. With
respect to illegal drugs, it means reducing the transmission of
infectious disease through syringe-exchange programs, reducing overdose
fatalities by making antidotes readily available, and allowing people
addicted to heroin and other illegal opiates to obtain methadone from
doctors and even pharmaceutical heroin from clinics. Britain, Canada,
Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland have already embraced this
last option. There’s no longer any question that these strategies
decrease drug-related harms without increasing drug use. What blocks
expansion of such programs is not cost; they typically save taxpayers’
money that would otherwise go to criminal justice and healthcare. No,
the roadblocks are abstinence-only ideologues and a cruel indifference
to the lives and well-being of people who use drugs.
"Reducing the Supply of Drugs Is the Answer"
Not if history is any guide. Reducing supply makes as much sense as
reducing demand; after all, if no one were planting cannabis, coca, and
opium, there wouldn’t be any heroin, cocaine, or marijuana to sell or
consume. But the carrot and stick of crop eradication and substitution
have been tried and failed, with rare exceptions, for half a century.
These methods may succeed in targeted locales, but they usually simply
shift production from one region to another: Opium production moves from
Pakistan to Afghanistan; coca from Peru to Colombia; and cannabis from
Mexico to the United States, while overall global production remains
relatively constant or even increases.
The carrot, in the form of economic development and assistance in
switching to legal crops, is typically both late and inadequate. The
stick, often in the form of forced eradication, including aerial
spraying, wipes out illegal and legal crops alike and can be hazardous
to both people and local environments. The best thing to be said for
emphasizing supply reduction is that it provides a rationale for
wealthier nations to spend a little money on economic development in
poorer countries. But, for the most part, crop eradication and
substitution wreak havoc among impoverished farmers without diminishing
overall global supply.
The global markets in cannabis, coca, and opium products operate
essentially the same way that other global commodity markets do: If one
source is compromised due to bad weather, rising production costs, or
political difficulties, another emerges. If international drug control
circles wanted to think strategically, the key question would no longer
be how to reduce global supply, but rather: Where does illicit
production cause the fewest problems (and the greatest benefits)? Think
of it as a global vice control challenge. No one expects to eradicate
vice, but it must be effectively zoned and regulated—even if it’s illegal.
"U.S. Drug Policy Is the World’s Drug Policy"
Sad, but true. Looking to the United States as a role model for drug
control is like looking to apartheid-era South Africa for how to deal
with race. The United States ranks first in the world in per capita
incarceration—with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but
almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The number of people locked
up for U.S. drug-law violations has increased from roughly 50,000 in
1980 to almost 500,000 today; that’s more than the number of people
Western Europe locks up for everything. Even more deadly is U.S.
resistance to syringe-exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS both at home
and abroad. Who knows how many people might not have contracted HIV if
the United States had implemented at home, and supported abroad, the
sorts of syringe-exchange and other harm-reduction programs that have
kept HIV/AIDS rates so low in Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, and
elsewhere. Perhaps millions.
And yet, despite this dismal record, the United States has succeeded in
constructing an international drug prohibition regime modeled after its
own highly punitive and moralistic approach. It has dominated the drug
control agencies of the United Nations and other international
organizations, and its federal drug enforcement agency was the first
national police organization to go global. Rarely has
one nation so successfully promoted its own failed policies to the rest
of the world.
But now, for the first time, U.S. hegemony in drug control is being
challenged. The European Union is demanding rigorous assessment of drug
control strategies. Exhausted by decades of service to the U.S.-led war
on drugs, Latin Americans are far less inclined to collaborate closely
with U.S. drug enforcement efforts. Finally waking up to the deadly
threat of HIV/AIDS, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and even Malaysia and
Iran are increasingly accepting of syringe-exchange and other
harm-reduction programs. In 2005, the ayatollah in charge of Iran’s
Ministry of Justice issued a fatwa declaring methadone maintenance and
syringe-exchange programs compatible with sharia (Islamic) law. One only
wishes his American counterpart were comparably enlightened.
"Afghan Opium Production Must Be Curbed"
Be careful what you wish for. It’s easy to believe that eliminating
record-high opium production in Afghanistan—which today accounts for
roughly 90 percent of global supply, up from 50 percent 10 years
ago—would solve everything from heroin abuse in Europe and Asia to the
resurgence of the Taliban.
But assume for a moment that the United States, NATO, and Hamid Karzai’s
government were somehow able to cut opium production in
Afghanistan. Who would benefit? Only the Taliban, warlords, and other
black-market entrepreneurs whose stockpiles of opium would skyrocket in
value. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan peasants would flock to cities,
ill-prepared to find work. And many Afghans would return to their farms
the following year to plant another illegal harvest, utilizing guerrilla
farming methods to escape intensified eradication
efforts. Except now, they’d soon be competing with poor farmers
elsewhere in Central Asia, Latin America, or even Africa. This is, after
all, a global commodities market.
And outside Afghanistan? Higher heroin prices typically translate into
higher crime rates by addicts. They also invite cheaper but more
dangerous means of consumption, such as switching from smoking to
injecting heroin, which results in higher HIV and hepatitis C rates.
All things considered, wiping out opium in Afghanistan would yield far
fewer benefits than is commonly assumed.
So what’s the solution? Some recommend buying up all the opium in
Afghanistan, which would cost a lot less than is now being spent
trying to eradicate it. But, given that farmers somewhere will produce
opium so long as the demand for heroin persists, maybe the world is
better off, all things considered, with 90 percent of it coming from
just one country. And if that heresy becomes the new gospel, it opens up
all sorts of possibilities for pursuing a new policy in Afghanistan that
reconciles the interests of the United States, NATO, and millions of
"Legalization Is the Best Approach"
It might be. Global drug prohibition is clearly a costly disaster. The
United Nations has estimated the value of the global market in
illicit drugs at $400 billion, or 6 percent of global trade. The
extraordinary profits available to those willing to assume the risks
enrich criminals, terrorists, violent political insurgents, and corrupt
politicians and governments. Many cities, states, and even countries in
Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia are reminiscent of Chicago under
Al Capone—times 50. By bringing the market for drugs out into the open,
legalization would radically change all that for the better.
More importantly, legalization would strip addiction down to what it
really is: a health issue. Most people who use drugs are like the
responsible alcohol consumer, causing no harm to themselves or anyone
else. They would no longer be the state’s business. But legalization
would also benefit those who struggle with drugs by reducing the risks
of overdose and disease associated with unregulated products,
eliminating the need to obtain drugs from dangerous criminal markets,
and allowing addiction problems to be treated as medical rather than
No one knows how much governments spend collectively on failing drug war
policies, but it’s probably at least $100 billion a year, with
federal, state, and local governments in the United States accounting
for almost half the total. Add to that the tens of billions of dollars
to be gained annually in tax revenues from the sale of legalized drugs.
Now imagine if just a third of that total were committed to reducing
drug-related disease and addiction. Virtually everyone, except those who
profit or gain politically from the current system, would benefit.
Some say legalization is immoral. That’s nonsense, unless one believes
there is some principled basis for discriminating against people based
solely on what they put into their bodies, absent harm to others. Others
say legalization would open the floodgates to huge increases in drug
abuse. They forget that we already live in a world in which psychoactive
drugs of all sorts are readily available—and
in which people too poor to buy drugs resort to sniffing gasoline, glue,
and other industrial products, which can be more harmful than any drug.
No, the greatest downside to legalization may well be the fact that the
legal markets would fall into the hands of the powerful alcohol,
tobacco, and pharmaceutical companies. Still, legalization is a far more
pragmatic option than living with the corruption, violence, and
organized crime of the current system.
"Legalization Will Never Happen"
Never say never. Wholesale legalization may be a long way off—but
partial legalization is not. If any drug stands a chance of being
legalized, it’s cannabis. Hundreds of millions of people have used it,
the vast majority without suffering any harm or going on to use "harder"
drugs. In Switzerland, for example, cannabis legalization was twice
approved by one chamber of its parliament, but narrowly
rejected by the other.
Elsewhere in Europe, support for the criminalization of cannabis is
waning. In the United States, where roughly 40 percent of the country’s
1.8 million annual drug arrests are for cannabis possession, typically
of tiny amounts, 40 percent of Americans say that the drug should be
taxed, controlled, and regulated like alcohol. Encouraged by Bolivian
President Evo Morales, support is also growing in Latin America and
Europe for removing coca from international antidrug conventions, given
the absence of any credible health reason for keeping it there.
Traditional growers would benefit economically, and there’s some
possibility that such products might compete favorably with more
problematic substances, including alcohol.
The global war on drugs persists in part because so many people fail to
distinguish between the harms of drug abuse and the harms of
prohibition. Legalization forces that distinction to the forefront. The
opium problem in Afghanistan is primarily a prohibition problem, not a
drug problem. The same is true of the narcoviolence and corruption that
has afflicted Latin America and the Caribbean for almost three
decades—and that now threatens Africa. Governments can arrest and kill
drug lord after drug lord, but the ultimate solution is a structural
one, not a prosecutorial one. Few people doubt any longer that the war
on drugs is lost, but courage and vision are needed to transcend the
ignorance, fear, and vested interests that sustain it.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Drugpolicy.org, the Web site of the Drug Policy Alliance, offers
statistics, arguments, and information about drug policies worldwide.
Ethan Nadelmann and Peter Andreas examine the politics of global crime
control in Policing the Globe: Criminalization and Crime
Control in International Relations (New York: Oxford University Press,
Joseph Westermeyer’s classic article, "The Pro-Heroin Effects of
Anti-Opium Laws in Asia" (Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol. 33, No.
9, September 1976), proved how banning opium in Asia stimulated heroin
production and use. For up-to-date analysis on the extent of drug use
around the world, see the Web sites of the Transnational Institute and
the International Harm Reduction Development Program.
In Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats Are Hijacking the
Global Economy (New York: Doubleday, 2005), FP Editor Moises Naim
documents the ways in which globalization bolsters the illegal trade of
drugs and other contraband products. Christopher Hitchens proposes the
end of the U.S. narcotics prohibition in "21 Solutions to Save the
World: Legalize It" (Foreign Policy, May/June 2007).
Note: Ethan Nadelmann is founder and executive director of the Drug