The ‘War on Drugs’ Has Failed, Commission Says

The global war on drugs is a failure and should be replaced by decriminalization strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights, according to a recent report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy. “Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use,” says the report.

In the 40 years since President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs, the Commission says repressive strategies focused on criminalization have not worked. “Arresting and incarcerating tens of millions of these people in recent decades has filled prisons and destroyed lives and families without reducing the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations,” the report concludes.

As an alternative, the Commission – which includes activists, business leaders, former American cabinet officials, and former European and Latin American presidents — points to a number of countries that have decriminalized drugs without seeing a significant rise in use or drug related-violence. Portugal saw declines in heroin use, new HIV infections, and the incarceration rate once it coupled the decriminalization of all drugs with treatment policies. Similar drops in problematic drug use, especially heroin, were observed in both Switzerland and the Netherlands after adopting polices that emphasized treatment rather than criminalization.

While the report says certain law enforcement strategies can help manage and shape illicit drug markets, poorly designed ones, on the other hand, can matters worse. The Commission cited a recent study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy that found aggressive law enforcement interventions in drug markets can markedly increase levels of violence. Heavily investing in a criminalization approach can inadvertently lead to an arms race between law enforcement and violent trafficking organizations, make those markets more ruthless, and increase the homicide rates. Arresting and punishing drug users tend to have a “marginal and short-lived impact on drug prices and availability” and create market opportunities for replaceable low-level dealers.

The criminalization of drug use in the U.S. has led to tragic consequences and mass incarceration, with a disproportionate impact on lower-income and minority communities.

Despite the fact that Whites, African Americans, and Latinos all use illicit drugs at similar rates, 45 percent of all convicted drug offenders in state prison are black compared to 28 percent that are white and 20 percent that are Hispanic, according to the Sentencing Project.  State prisons account for about 85 percent of all prisoners in the U.S.  Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in prison or jail in the U.S. for drug crimes has gone from 40,000 to 500,000, representing an increase of 1100 percent.  Much of that explosion in the incarceration of drug offenders is due to aggressive law enforcement interventions and stiff mandatory sentencing provisions mainly targeting low-level dealers and users adopted at both state and federal level.

Criminal justice and civil rights advocates have been particularly critical of the negative consequences of the drug war.  Felony convictions, even those stemming from a drug offense, can restrict job prospects, housing assistance, financial aid for higher education, voting rights and erode other hard won civil rights gains of the last century.

But some progress has been made in making the drug war less punitive.  Earlier this year, President Obama said he was willing consider alternatives to “arrests, incarceration, interdiction” and focus on “we shrink demand.”  Last summer, the president signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which narrowed the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.  Attorney General Eric Holder also recently endorsed retroactive sentencing reductions for some crack offenders.

By the same token, however, the Obama administration vigorously opposed a measure to legalize marijuana in California this fall.  Gil Kerlikowske, the nation’s drug czar, also made it clear in a recent op-ed that the Obama administration did not support decriminalizing drugs since, by his lights, decriminalization would to an “increase drug use and the need for drug treatment, while also making it more difficult to keep our communities healthy and safe.”

That kind of thinking will likely only mitigate some of the effects but not end a $2.5 trillion drug war that continues to destroy the lives of millions of people every day.