Ten ways the War on Drugs is failing

The War on Drugs fails developing countries and poor people around the world. Sometimes, this is obvious, sometimes it’s not. Here’s ten ways the war on drugs does more harm than good.

  1. The War on Drugs damages democracy: The War on Drugs has made organised criminals and drug cartels richer and more powerful. In poor countries, the cartels are so rich they can buy politicians and pay off the military. The money and power the cartels have undermines democracy and makes states more fragile. It means people in poverty have no chance of lobbying for better public services or having their human rights properly protected.


  1. The War on Drugs increases poverty: Most farmers who grow drug crops are poor – and stay poor. When crops are eradicated as part of the War on Drugs, the farmers lose all of their (small) income because governments tend to ‘spray first, offer alternatives later.’ This is completely the wrong way round. Moreover, because drugs are illegal (prohibited), eradication of some crops can actually put prices up, creating more incentive for farmers to continue growing drug crops, especially when they are in debt due to destroyed crops and there aren’t any realistic alternatives. By focusing on eradication and prohibition, rather than the poverty that leads people to grow drug crops in the first place, poverty is more likely to get worse.


  1. The War on Drugs fails women: More women are in jail for non-violent drug offences across Latin America, Europe and Asia. Often women are coerced into the illegal activity, or forced into it by poverty. When women are sentenced, this coercion isn’t taken into account because countries have to be ‘tough on drugs’. This just makes things worse for the women involved and their families as they are locked in a cycle of joblessness, poverty and criminality. Crop eradication programmes also take away a family’s income in one fell swoop, impacting female headed houses the hardest. Drug policy is a womens rights issue.


  1. The War on Drugs prevents access to essential medicines: Strict drug laws have unintended consequences. For instance, restrictions to stop medicines in the same family as heroin being sold illegally make morphine unavailable for those in severe pain. 90% of AIDS patients and 50% of cancer patients have access to just 6% of the morphine used globally for pain relief. Ketamine – which is an essential anesthetic used in very resource poor settings– is similarly at risk of being placed under strict restrictions. This particularly affects those in poorer countries and undermines their right to health.


  1. The War on Drugs pollutes water: Chemicals like glyphosphate are used to eradicate crops, sometimes sprayed from helicopters and aeroplanes relatively indiscriminately. Glyphosphate can cause cancer, but through these projects it gets into the water and destroys land fertility. This forces farmers into more remote areas, increasing deforestation.


  1. The War on Drugs stops action to tackle HIV: The war on drugs means that some countries don’t provide HIV treatment or harm reduction services (like needle exchanges or treatment) to people who use drug. Criminalisation also means that where is does exist people who use drugs are less likely to access treatment, or even any form of healthcare. Globally, just 4% of HIV positive people who use drugs have access to HIV treatment. This increases the risk of HIV transmission amongst those who use drugs.


  1. The War on Drugs breeds violence: The war on drugs is often frighteningly literal. We’ve seen increasing use of the military – and police forces that look and act more like a military. This hasn’t brought peace or justice. Instead, it’s bred an arms race that has resulted in hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of unnecessary deaths as cartels struggle for territory and markets in an increasingly volatile places. In Mexico alone 23,000 people were murdered in 2016. Only in Syria were more people killed.


  1. The War on Drugs harms the natural world: When farmers’ drug crops are eradicated they don’t necessarily stop growing drug crops. For most there aren’t any realistic alternatives. Either the land they farm can’t really support other cash crops, or they can’t get them to market because the area is so remote. Even if they can get to market, often other crops can’t provide the level of income they need to support their family. When their crops are destroyed farmers are forced to move into new areas, cutting down forests in the process. This in turn worsens climate change and biodiversity.


  1. The War on Drugs criminalises the young, poor, and marginalized: Tough drug laws mean that lots of people – particularly women, the young, and marginalized or oppressed groups – are criminalized for low level, non violent crimes like possession or subsistence dealing. The major players generally get off scot free. In the UK and the US young people from black and Asian communities are far more likely to be charged with drug offences, despite similar levels of use as the rest of the population. This locks young people into poverty, stops them accessing social services and employment, and denies them their rights to health. In other places, farmers and women are criminalized (see above), but this fails to address the root causes of their poverty.


  1. The War on Drugs is a waste of money: The cost of the war on drugs is at least $100 billion a year. That’s almost as much as the global aid budget (about $130 billion). If redirected, the money spent on the war on drugs could help provide healthcare, education and clean water to everyone. If drugs were regulated, controlled and taxed we could not only ensure safety of users and the rights of producers, but also raise taxes to address the poverty and lack of public services globally. Half of the total global illicit financial flows were a result of the war on drugs. If a fraction of this went to providing decent healthcare through taxation, the world would be a better place.


Want to know more?

Read about the ways the war on drugs undermines the SDGs

Read our report, Casualties of War

Learn how you can take action today

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