Why haven't we won the war on drugs?
‘The policy has become a war on marginalised groups of drug-users’
Jemima Storey | 3 December 2017

For nearly 50 years, governments around the world, led by the US, have been fighting a war on recreational drugs. The aim: to reduce the production, supply and use of certain drugs and ultimately create a drug-free society. After spending over $1 trillion dollars on the policy, why is the war not yet won?

President Nixon announced the war on drugs on 17 June 1971, committing the US to a policy of prohibition of the sale and use of illicit substances. Nixon said “I am convinced the only way to fight this menace is by attacking it on many fronts”. Many governments have followed suit, with the United Nations pledging in 1998 to free the world of certain particularly dangerous drugs by 2008. But recreational drugs are still very much in evidence, with an illegal market flourishing and a turnover of $320bn a year. While the price of illegal drugs has decreased over the past 20 years, their purity has increased (British Medical Journal, 2013). With so many countries committed to fighting drugs, why are illegal drugs still so ubiquitous?

Perhaps ‘winning’ is impossible, since the policy has become a war on marginalised groups of drug-users. Stopping people from using drugs becomes seen as an attack on their autonomy. Moreover, where drugs are suppressed in one area, they pop up in another. Finally, as drug offences constitute ‘consensual crime’, where the alleged ‘victim’ is also the alleged ‘perpetrator’, gathering information from witnesses is particularly difficult. Thus police are highly dependent on the cooperation from individuals, communities and victims, making this problematic in the context of crimes which rest on the consent of those that are involved.

Yet governments remain determined. As Home Secretary, Theresa May proposed legislation making it illegal to supply certain recreational drugs. While the aims of the Psychoactive Substances Act are commendable, the legislation was criticised as unworkable. The Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs said the act risked criminalising otherwise law-abiding young people.

It is possible that the failure to achieve the war’s state aim is because the stated aim is not the real purpose. The state has increasingly justified itself in terms of providing security for people, and in order to provide security you need a sense of threat. In recent years the threat discourse has coalesced around two things: terrorism and drugs. Disproportionate to their real harmfulness, drugs have been framed as an existential threat to civilised society, justifying increased government intervention in people’s lives. Instead of a ‘war on drugs’, the policy increasingly seems like a ‘war on people’, targeting vulnerable users of the ‘wrong drugs’. Of course, most people consume other kinds of drugs, such as alcohol, meaning that the UN’s 1961 Single Convention on Drugs exempted nicotine and alcohol, despite their being public health problems. Criminalising pleasure-seeking drug-users is therefore unjust targeting of a vulnerable group of people.

Resisting the figurative call to arms (in this all-too-real war) is hard. Uruguayan President Mujica went against the grain of public opinion to push for cannabis regulation. If we in the UK have seen politicians like Home Secretary Roy Jenkins challenging the death penalty, despite their actions’ initial unpopularity in the 1960s, surely we can do the same with drugs, regardless of voter opinion.

But even without prohibition, some regulation is needed. Production and supply must be transferred from organised criminals, unregulated dealers and entrepreneurs to doctors, pharmacists and licensed retailers. Through price control, a purity guide and safer use warnings, ordinary citizens can be protected in a world free from prohibition.

Of course, there will always be an element of ‘prohibition’ with drugs. The question is where you draw the line. An optimal heroine regulatory framework would, for instance, not be one enabling totally free access, with limitations similar to (and perhaps tougher than) those regarding alcohol. There will always be a heroine-consuming population, but we have to ask ourselves whether the black market is really the best way of allowing them to consume their chosen recreational drug.

So, what is the future of international drug policy? Canada plans to legalise cannabis in 2018, putting ‘drug-warrior’ states in a difficult position. Prime Minister Trudeau’s exquisite explanation that Canada wants to protect young people and undermine organised crime makes me hope that the ‘war on drugs’ will no longer be a topic of interest in a decade’s time. The war can never be won. Instead of thinking in terms of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’, we should consider the best way to improve everyone’s well-being and human flourishing.


Original Illustration by Jemima Storey.

James Routledge 2016