Losing the “war on drugs”
Crisis and contradiction in international policy

by Steve Rolles, Transform Drug Policy Institute

In April 2003 the UN Commission for Narcotic Drugs (CND) concluded its annual meeting and Ministerial Conference of member states to mark the half way point in the ten year UN strategy: “a drug free world, we can do it!”. Devised at the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in New York, world leaders put their faith in the elimination or significant reduction in poppy, coca and cannabis cultivation. Despite the positive spin to emerge from the CND gathering, it is impossible to disguise the failings of this strategy. Neither did the ministerial endorsement of the ten-year plan, and vague recommendations to enhance drug control strategies, mask the crisis in international drugs policy. The UK Home Affairs Select Committee had called for a discussion of alternatives at the conference, “including the possibility of legalisation and regulation to tackle the global drugs dilemma”;
the CND ministers subsequently expressed:

grave concern about policies and activities in favour of the legalization of illicit narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances that were not in accordance with the international drug control treaties and that might jeopardize the international drug control regime (1)

Losing the war on drugs

The UK is a signatory (along with almost all UN member states) to three UN drug control treaties (1961, 1971, 1988) that enshrine the basic tenets of prohibition: the criminalisation of production, supply, and possession of specific drugs into domestic law. After four decades of the ‘war on drugs’ and untold billions spent on co-ordinated international drug control and enforcement, the market for illegal drugs continues to expand (estimates for the size of the international drug trade now range from £100-£300 billion a year, putting it on a par with the oil and arms trade). The negative consequences of these illegal markets expand accordingly, exacting a terrible toll across the world from producer countries such as Colombia and Afghanistan, to the deprived crime ridden inner cities of Western Europe. This crisis has essentially been precipitated by the collision of rising illegal drug use with prohibitionist policies formulated in an era when patterns of use were unrecognisable from those of today.

Unintended consequences

For the first time ever the UK updated drugs strategy 2002 refers to “maintaining prohibition” (as a deterrent for young people) (3). What the strategy excludes is the potential to address the unintended negative consequences of a prohibitionist approach. Just as with alcohol in 1920’s and 30’s USA, violent and deregulated illegal markets are inevitable when a policy of prohibition collides with a continued or growing demand for prohibited substances. Significantly, the negative impacts of prohibition in the UK, and globally, have expanded in proportion to the ballooning demand for illegal drugs over the past three decades.

The price of illegal drugs is artificially high. The price of a kilo of cocaine in Colombia is £1,000. In the UK it is £30 000 (4). This 3,000% profit margin not only attracts organised crime, it also makes street prices far higher than they would be in a legal market, leading to high levels of property crime and street prostitution amongst problematic users. That heroin use in the UK has increased by over 1000% since 1971 illustrates the extent to which the policy-making environment has shifted (5). This change has presented problems that could hardly have been imagined when the original UN drug control treaties were drafted, with some of the text dating back to the late 1940’s.

Market forces

At the global scale the inflated prices of illegal drugs provide an extraordinary profit opportunity for trans-national criminal organisations, whether traditional organised crime networks, or newer terrorist groups. As an adjunct to illegal drug supply activities, such groups are invariably also involved in murder, assault, fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, intimidation and corruption. At the national scale, for key drug producer countries in particular, the profits made from illegal drugs fuel corruption at all levels of government and the criminal justice system, undermining social development and endangering fundamental social structures. The recent UK Home Office research into the social and economic impact of illegal drugs in the UK estimated the costs in 2000 at between £10.1 and £17.4 billion. It calculated that 70% of this figure are “victim costs of crime” rather than the impacts of drug use itself (6). This research strongly suggests that the cost to society from drug use is eclipsed by the far greater burden generated by the crime that results when prohibition policies collide with rising use.

At the local level prohibition has created violent territorial battles (‘turf wars’) between rival drug gangs fighting to secure the large profits offered by illegal drug markets. This is particularly the case in socially deprived communities where rates of problematic drug use are highest (7). Police have also closely associated the alarming recent rise in gun crime with the development of territorial battles to control illegal drug markets. The Home Office estimates that 50% of all property crime is committed by the UK’s approximately 300,000 problematic heroin and crack users. These drugs are essentially worthless commodities that only assume huge value because of their scarcity and the risks carried by the chain of criminal suppliers. These inflated street prices fuel offending amongst problematic illegal users, a phenomenon not observed amongst problematic users of legal drugs.

Human Rights

There is widespread use of the death penalty for drug offences in violation of the UN charter of human rights. China routinely celebrates UN world anti- drugs day with mass executions of drug offenders, 64 being executed on June 27th 2002, and 54 the previous year (8). The CND have yet to publicly condemned this practice despite the UN Commission on Human Rights calling for a moratorium on all executions. Neither have they condemned the estimated 2,000 killings of drug-users in Thailand following a recent escalation of the war on drugs in that country.

An estimated 2 million people are imprisoned globally for drug offences, one quarter of the total prison population. This places a huge financial and human cost on society with little evidence of benefits. Furthermore, it is invariably the ‘weakest links’ in the illegal drug chain (peasant growers, drug ‘mules’, and problematic users) who feel the greatest impact of drug enforcement. The top players have the resources to evade legal consequences and bargaining power (as informants) if they are caught.

Indigenous cultures in some producer countries that have long traditions of medical and ceremonial uses of local drug crops (coca, opium and cannabis) have also come under attack through the criminalisation of traditional practices and aggressive eradication programmes.

Public health

The significant impact of the UN drug control policy focus on enforcement and interdiction is that health based interventions and harm reduction suffer from funding constraints and political obstacles. The result is higher rates of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases, more drug deaths from overdose and infection, and generally higher rates of drug related harm. Thus, many of the harms associated with illegal drug use are a direct result of their illegality, relating to unknown strength, impurities, inadequate information and a tendency to move to more concentrated versions of drugs (heroin and crack). Running prohibition and harm reduction policies concurrently creates a perverse situation where one set of polices is creating collateral damage that another set of policies is then seeking to reduce.

Environmental damage

Crop eradication using aerial fumigation, has been a corner stone of UN policy for over 20 years. It causes serious and wide scale environmental damage but has not been effective at reducing global drug production, which is so profitable that it relocates to new regions, often further exacerbating negative environmental impacts. Cocaine production in Colombia has more than trebled since eradication began.

Serious concerns have been raised over the UNDCP program (part funded by the UK) to develop mycoherbicides, fungus designed to attack specific species of drug crops. The concerns relate to dangers of epidemic spread, cross-infection of non-drug crops and threats to human health (9). If used without state consent these mycoherbicides would be classed as biological weapons in violation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

Reviewing UN drug policy

In the wake of rising global drug use and production during the 1990’s, calls grew for a review of the efficacy and viability of the UN drug control system’s enforcement oriented strategy. These calls were led by Mexico, which in 1993 called for the 1998 UNGASS to be convened. The idea was for a global review of anti-drug strategies, with a view to improving and adapting them for the next century. Unfortunately this review failed to take place due to pressure from states which advocated more forceful application of existing control policies as the only way to achieve the so far elusive reductions in drug supply and demand. Leading the objections was the USA, the spiritual home of prohibition and enforcement-led ‘war on drugs’ thinking. This pressure led to the rejection of a proposal to install an expert review committee to undertake an independent evaluation of drug control efforts and ‘new strategies’ at the very first pre UNGASS ‘Prep-Com’ meeting in Vienna in March 1997. Ultimately the 1998 UNGASS saw no meaningful evaluation or review of policy effectiveness or the wider impact of the UN drug control system’s increasingly repressive approach. As a New York Times editorial put it, it was devoted to “recycling unrealistic pledges”.

More recently a management crisis at the UNDCP resulted in the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) being called in to investigate. One of the OIOS reports concluded:

lacking was a consistent system for programme oversight in the form of monitoring implementation and assessing results. (..) Thematic evaluations were few and had not led to much-needed substantive discussions or changes in practice. There was no mechanism to formulate lessons learned and to feed them back into programme formulation and delivery.(10)

Available evidence suggests that CND led supply control efforts have, at best, had an impact that is marginal, localised and temporary. The CND has produced no evidence that any supply control programmes (including eradication, crop substitution or international enforcement and interdiction) have ever been effective in global terms. On the contrary, trends in production and use of the drugs crops singled out in 1998 have continued to rise. Heroin and cocaine are cheaper and more available than ever before in UK street markets (11).

A review of the UNDCP 2000 World Drug Report (by Carla Rossi, a board member of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction) concluded that: the volume cannot be considered of any value in terms of information, and even less so in terms of "scientific rigor”, and that it served “the aim of twisting the data in order to support pre-established theses that are not corroborated at all by real epidemiological observations” (12). The OISIS also concluded that claimed successes on the drugs front were "beyond the limits of credibility (13).

Contradictory agendas? UN drug-policy, the WHO, UNAIDS and UK drug strategy

In UN agencies outside of the UN drug control machinery (CND, INCB (International Narcotics Control Board), UNDCP (UN Drug Control Programme)) the concept of ‘harm reduction’ has rapidly gained ground and the World Health Organisation, UN Development Programme and UNAIDS use the term as a matter of course. The UNGASS 2001 on HIV/AIDS adopted a declaration that called for “harm reduction efforts related to drug use” and “expanded access to essential commodities, including [..] sterile injecting equipment”. Similarly, harm reduction is now a central plank of UK drug policy thinking. In the 2002 update of the UK drugs strategy (p.3) David Blunkett called harm minimisation one of “our most powerful tools in dealing with drugs”. (3)

By contrast the UN drug control bodies are extremely wary of the ‘harm reduction’ concept considering it “controversial in many environments” and stating that the term “has been used as a flag for a variety of causes and, as such, has been given disproportionate attention” (15). This equivocal stance towards harm reduction combined with the overwhelming focus on enforcement and eradication makes the CND increasingly isolated from the UN system, and increasingly at odds with trends in UK and European policy development.

There is also growing divergence of views over how to address the current crisis between the UN drug control bodies and a number of key member states. This has in essence been caused by policy evolution and innovation amongst certain states (most in Western Europe but also including Australia, New Zealand and Canada) relative to the dogmatism and stagnation in UN drug control policy thinking.

On one side is the progressive European view which puts emphasis on tolerant policing, harm reduction and health based interventions such as needle exchanges, substitute prescribing, safe injecting rooms, and decriminalisation of possession. On the other side is the dominant US/CND view, that the ‘war on drugs’ must be pursued with renewed vigour, characterised by concepts such as ‘zero tolerance’, increasing militarisation of drug enforcement, harsher sentencing and crop eradication.

There is no question that sooner or later the European tolerance trend will run into the limitations of the UN conventions. It already touches the very edges of the letter and spirit of some articles. Most steps taken along this path so far are defensible in that they technically adhere to the conventions, but this defence already requires some creativity of interpretation and space for further experimentation and innovation is minimal.

Conclusion: barriers to reform

It should be unacceptable to UNDCP donor states, including the UK, that the UNDCP is not accountable to any meaningful evaluation of its programmes whatsoever. The UK should demand regular, comprehensive and independent evaluation of the effectiveness of CND policy and UNDCP initiatives and spending. Evaluation of spending should incorporate the wider impacts of current UN drug control policy on public health, crime, human rights and the environment. Appropriate indicators need to be developed so that impacts on these areas of concern can be satisfactorily evaluated. The level of drug seizures, for example, is not an adequate indicator of overall policy effectiveness. Targets should cover all indicators used in policy evaluation, not just those likely to show success.

In the short term it is important for the UK and other states exploring progressive policy alternatives to ensure ‘room for manoeuvre’ within the strictures of the UN treaties so that the development and implementation of UK harm reduction initiatives and other evidence based policy innovations are not undermined. In the longer term the UK must question its commitment to treaties that are entrenching counterproductive policy initiatives and creating obstacles to innovative policy development when they should be facilitating it. The 2002 Home Affairs Select Committee report on UK drug policy stated that

in the longer term we believe the time has come for the treaties to be reconsidered (17) [paragraph 266].

It then went further:

We recommend that the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways – including the possibility of legalisation and regulation – to tackle the global drugs dilemma. (17) – [paragraph 277].

The political obstacles to effective alternatives to the drug war are enormous. Sadly drug enforcement is now a multi-billion dollar industry in which many powerful agencies have vested interests, often stifling serious high level debate. At the top of the pile sits the US and its domination of the UN drug agenda. The drug war has proved to be a useful tool for justifying foreign policy interventions that would otherwise struggle for acceptance. It is not something they will let go of easily.

Ultimately drug policy, as with any social policy, needs to developed in a rational way based on evidence of effectiveness. If prohibition is ineffective alternatives need to be thoroughly evaluated, and those alternatives inevitably include the possibility of state regulated drug production and supply.



(1) Drug Commission Concludes Ministerial Segment With Adoption Of Measures To Enhance Drug Control Efforts, United Nations Information Service, UNIS/NAR/793, 17 April 2003.

(2) Modern Policy Making: Ensuring policies deliver value for money. National Audit Office, November 2001.

(3) UK Updated Drug Strategy 2002, page 6. (ISBN 1-84082-9397)

(4) Terry Byrne, Director of law Enforcement , HM customs and excise, in oral evidence to Home Affairs Select Committee (ISBN 0 215 003349) “The Governments Drug Policy: is it working.(Vol III, p.110 para 715)

(5) Christine Godfrey Gail Eaton Cynthia McDougall and Anthony Culyer 2002. Home Office Research Study 249 “The economic and social costs of Class A drug use in England and Wales, 2000”.

(6) Drugs and the Law REPORT OF THE INDEPENDENT INQUIRY INTO THE MISUSE OF DRUGS ACT 1971. Chairman: Viscountess Runciman DBE - in reference to Home Office Notified heroin addicts index. (Chapter 2 para. 17)

(7) Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs “Drug Use and the Environment” Chapter 9. The Stationary Office (ISBN 011 3411839)

(8) http://www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/asiapcf/east/06/26/china.drugs/

(9) Paul Rogers, Simon Whitby, & Malcolm Dundo, June 1999, SILVER BULLET OR POISON CHALICE: THE BIOWAR AGAINST DRUGS.
Scientific American.

(10) OIOS, Report on the Inspection of Programme Management and Administrative Practices in the Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, General Assembly, A 56/83, June 1, 2001

(11) Cabinet office Minister Ian Mccartney in reply to parliamentary question From Dr Jenny Tonge MP (140370).

(12) Rossi C (2001)

(13) OIOS, Report on the Triennial Review of the Implementation of the Recommendations Made by the Committee for Programme and
Coordination at its Thirty-Eight Session on the In-depth Evaluation of the United Nations International Drug control Programme
, ECOSOC,E/AC.51/2001/4, May 4, 2001

(14) Informing America's Policy on Illegal Drugs: What We Don't Know Keeps Hurting Us, Committee on Data and Research for Policy on Illegal Drugs, Charles F. Manski, John V. Pepper, and Carol V. Petrie, Editors, Committee on Law and Justice and Committee on National Statistics,
National Research Council 2001.

(15) UNODC report (ISBN 92-1-148144-9 ), page 2.

(16) http://www.tni.org/drugs/ungass/index.htm

(17) Home Affairs Select Committee (ISBN 0 215 003349) “The Governments Drug Policy: is it working?".


Article written by Steve Rolles, Information Officer, Transform Drug Policy Institute, steve@transform-drugs.org.uk

www.tdpi.org.uk  |  http://www.tni.org/drugs/index.htm

This article first appeared in Statewatch bulletin March - April 2003 (Vol 13 no 2).

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