Rethink the War on Drugs

Health Poverty Action supports a reassessment of the War on Drugs

Since the mid-twentieth century, global drug policy has been dominated by strict prohibition with the use of law enforcement to try and reduce the supply of illicit drugs.

This approach, which has come to be known as the ‘War on Drugs’, hasn’t worked.

Instead it has fuelled poverty and failed some of the poorest and most marginalised communities worldwide.

Watch our new animation exploring how global drug policies affect ordinary people around the world.


Read our full report: Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs is harming the world’s poorest

See what changes we are advocating for in our Policy Recommendations for UNGASS 2016

Take action now: Sign up to pledge your support to urgently rethink drug policy


Kofi Annan quote War on Drugs

The War on Drugs…

  • Undermines democratic governance. The power and influence of drug cartels severely weakens states. The culture of fear and corruption can make it almost impossible for citizens to exercise democratic influence, access their rights, and hold officials to account for essential public services such as health and education.
  • Diverts attention and resources from essential services. Many governments in poor countries are engaged in constant civil war with the drug cartels.  It is a war they are ill-equipped to win, with the cartels often having access to far greater financial resources. The costs of waging this war, both financial and in terms of dominating the political agenda, again leave little for public services such as health care.
  • Wastes global finance. The worldwide cost of waging the War on Drugs is estimated at $100 billion a year. This is approaching the same amount as the global aid budget (currently $130 billion).
  • Blocks access to essential medicines. Five billion people live in countries with limited or no access to opioid pain medications like morphine, and in most of those countries, overly stringent regulations on legal medications, spurred by fears that they could find their way to the illicit market, play a major role in depriving people of the pain relief they need.
  • Causes pollution and deforestation. The pursuit of drug prohibition involves the regular eradication of crops in areas where drug-related crops are grown and drugs produced, followed by deforestation when cultivation and production are relocated. This can be particularly harmful to indigenous communities and biodiversity.
  • Criminalises small scale farmers and people who use drugs. The potential consequences of being discovered breaking the law, prevents people who use drugs from accessing state services like health care and police protection. It also makes harm reduction work much more difficult. In addition, criminalisation cuts farmers off from the support they would need (such as financing) to make a sustainable living growing other crops.
  • Undermines sustainable agriculture and local food production. Crop eradication also damages local food production and sustainable agriculture by destroying food crops and polluting the soil and water, reducing farmers’ ability to grow crops on the same land in the future.
  • Increases local drug use and associated health problems.  Crackdowns on the drug trade in one region displace it to new areas, creating a cheap local supply in more developing countries, which inevitably leads to higher levels of local use.  In many places, farm workers are paid with drugs rather than money.

Health Poverty Action is concerned that current drug policies are causing immense suffering in poor countries, and denying poor and marginalised people their health rights.

We are driven by our conviction that it is not acceptable for anyone to be denied their health rights.

Drug policy is a development issue. Just like tax avoidance and climate change, current global drug policies undermine development initiatives and the internationally-agreed Millennium Development Goals.

Yet, unlike with these issues, the development sector in the UK remains largely silent on drug policy. If international NGOs are serious about dealing with the root causes of poverty and not just the symptoms, the sector can no longer be absent from debates on drug policy reform.

Health Poverty Action supports a reassessment of the War on Drugs.

While the debate over global drug policy in the past has been polarised between two extremes – prohibition on the one hand, and free market legalisation on the other – our choices are not limited to these. There is a third policy option, using a combination of regulation and legal controls.

Without supporting any particular policy, Health Poverty Action calls for exploration of this last option. We urgently need evidence-based alternative policies that take a public health perspective and a development-oriented approach.

As governments prepare for the UN General Assembly’s Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016, we have a unique opportunity to ensure the rights of the poorest and most marginalised are at the heart of the negotiations. Let’s seize it.

For further information please visit:

This work is supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. Find out more about their work to address the War on Drugs.


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