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A change in strategy Report advocates a replacement of the war on drugs

Drug policies focused on eradication and punishment should be replaced with ones centered on social, economic and political development and integration, according to a report by the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“After the Drug Wars,” published on Feb. 15, is a collaboration of more than 20 experts in a wide range of subjects, including drug policy, security, trafficking and judicial systems, who are part of the school’s Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy. A group of signers, including several academics, five Nobel Laureates and Colombian President Jose Manuel Santos affirm that “the ‘war on drugs’ caused the international community to prioritize prohibitionist policies over sustainable development at a terrible socioeconomic cost.”

Similarly, they state that “the global drug regulatory system must shift to principles of sustainable development that include: public health, harm reduction of consumption and supply, access to essential medicines,and scientific experimentation with strict legal regulation.”

John Collins, executive director of the LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Programme, writes in the report that the “war on drugs” and the policies that it upholds have been largely discredited. He mentions that leaders across the globe, including two heads of state currently in office–President Santos and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau–have rejected the former approach and instead favor new ones grounded in public health and policy alternatives.

“In this new era, the post-‘war on drugs’ era,” writes Collins, “national and local spheres increasingly hold greater relevance than international ones in determining policy choices and outcomes.”

Instead, the report suggests, current prohibitionist drug policies should be replaced by ones that align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, approach the drug problem as a public health issue rather than a criminal one, focus on reducing the harm caused instead of ignoring it and engage in highly regulated social scientific policy experimentation.

The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, despite not directly intended to tackle the drug problem, prioritize sustainable development and political integration.3

“Since the 1980s … people have been regularly exposing the need to end the war on drugs as it exists, and yet it continues to go on,” UTRGV Criminal Justice Lecturer Kenneth Cowle said. “This is clearly not a new thing … an [international] initiative may be new, but the idea that we need to in some way, shape or form change our approach to drugs has been around almost for my entire lifetime.”

The United States and Mexico have been two of the most prominent countries to carry out the “war on drugs” at a great economic, social and security cost.

According to the Mexican attorney general’s office, more than 164,000 people were murdered between 2007 and 2014; other estimates place it a much higher number. Additionally, over 140,860 individuals were arrested for drug use, which is not formally a crime in Mexico, between 2009 and 2014.

“The cost is immense,” said Catalina Pérez Correa, a professor and researcher in the Legal Studies Division of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico and a contributor of the report.

“These are thousands of people that are detained,” Pérez said in Spanish. “All the penal institutions are being used, [as well as] the resources of the penal institutions, to tend to a problem that is basically a public health issue and diverting the resources that could be used for more relevant functions.”

The credibility of those in charge of enforcing the drug laws is also a concern.

“It is important to [note] that the institutions that implement these rules … it’s not the Mexican police, it’s the Iguala, [Guerrero, Mexico] police that abducted the 43 students [from Ayotzinapa’s Rural Teacher’s College], it’s the Veracruz police that [allegedly abducted] five young people, it’s the Mexico City police that is known for its abuse and extortion and violations of due process.”

Additionally Pérez said the that due to the inefficiency of penal institutions in Latin American countries, including Mexico, consumers are being disproportionately targeted.
“The easy answer to them is detaining consumers that are easy to locate,” she said. “It’s very easy to prove they had the necessary proof to process them. It’s very unproductive in social terms.”

The “war on drugs” has come at a great cost to the United States as well.

The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that the country spends over $50 billion a year on drug control. The amount, part of state and federal budgets, made up half of the $100 billion worldwide expenditure estimated by Count the Costs, a collaboration among several non-governmental organizations that estimates the cost of the “war on drugs.”

“There’s pretty good evidence in the U.S. … that the whole war on drugs has increased offsets of public health problems, and hasn’t resolved a thing,” said Amy Hay, an associate professor of history at UTRGV.

Hay said the strategy, in fact, causes tremendous problems. Drug users are treated as criminals first, and as people with medical addictions second.

“The current drug war doesn’t seek treatment, it seeks punishment,” she said.

Additionally, Michael Shiner, assistant director of the Mannheim Centre of Criminology at the London School of Economics and contributor to “After the Drug Wars,” writes that although it is believed that heavy enforcement may increase drug prices, acting almost like a tax, there are no clear cases in which large-scale arrests disrupted drug markets or large-scale seizures increased the market prices.

“Currently, the success of a policy is measured in how many seizures, how many detentions, how many eradications of crops there are,” Pérez said. “The need is to measure in some other way the success or failure of drug policies.”

Although hopes are high and progress is underway, a change might not be as near as most would like.

“Since the end of the Nixon administration and into the Carter administration, everybody has essentially been saying that the ‘war on drugs’ is a failure, but this is between governments,” Cowle said. “It takes forever to turn it around.”

Although Cowle foresees incremental change, he doesn’t necessarily see a complete one.

“I can’t imagine that they would change that radically, it’s just not the way public policies tend to work,” he said.

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