Reconsidering the war on drugs

Last week, the Global Commission on Drug Policy published their Report which argues that a "War on Drugs" policy is an inefficient use of public resources.  The commission is an impressive group (which includes, among others, Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson) but the report has been [predictably] rejected by leaders in the US and Mexico (despite the comission being convened by Latin American leaders that include former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo).  I was intrigued by the fact that these leaders were explicitly trying to maximize social welfare subject to budget constraints, so I took a look for myself.  I particularly appreciate the report's first "principle":
Drug policies must be based on solid empirical and scientific evidence. The primary measure of success should be the reduction of harm to the health, security and welfare of individuals and society. 
In the 50 years since the United Nations initiated a truly global drug prohibition system, we have learned much about the nature and patterns of drug production, distribution, use and dependence, and the effectiveness of our attempts to reduce these problems. It might have been understandable that the architects of the system would place faith in the concept of eradicating drug production and use (in the light of the limited evidence available at the time). There is no excuse, however, for ignoring the evidence and experience accumulated since then. Drug policies and strategies at all levels too often continue to be driven by ideological perspectives, or political convenience, and pay too little attention
to the complexities of the drug market, drug use and drug addiction....  
click to enlarge
This reminds us that drug policies were initially developed and implemented in the hope of achieving outcomes in terms of a reduction in harms to individuals and society – less crime, better health, and more economic and social development. However, we have primarily been measuring our success in the war on drugs by entirely different measures – those that report on processes, such as the number of arrests, the amounts seized, or the harshness of punishments. These indicators may tell us how tough we are being, but they do not tell us how successful we are in improving the ‘health and welfare of mankind’.
I found the report thoughtful and the overall conclusions eerily reminiscent of John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s 1932 remark during Prohibition
When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.
and reflected in this simple wikipedia graph

I don't think any of this is surprising to economists.  The demand for drugs is highly inelastic, so prices will rise dramatically if supply is restricted.  The burden of "taxation" (in this case, the energy the drug industry must expend to evade tough policies) is easily passed from suppliers onto consumers in the form of higher prices.  No surprises here, just basic principles from public finance.

Below are the key findings of the report.
Our principles and recommendations can be summarized as follows: 
End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. Challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence.

Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens. This recommendation applies especially to cannabis, but we also encourage other experiments in decriminalization and legal regulation that can accomplish these objectives and provide models for others.

Offer health and treatment services to those in need. Ensure that a variety of treatment modalities are available, including not just methadone and buprenorphine treatment but also the heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada. Implement syringe access and other harm reduction measures that have proven effective in reducing transmission of HIV and other blood-borne infections as well as fatal overdoses. Respect the human rights of people who use drugs. Abolish abusive practices carried out in the name of treatment – such as forced detention, forced labor, and physical or psychological abuse – that contravene human rights standards and norms or that remove the right to self-determination.  
Apply much the same principles and policies stated above to people involved in the lower ends of illegal drug markets, such as farmers, couriers and petty sellers. Many are themselves victims of violence and intimidation or are drug dependent. Arresting and incarcerating tens of millions of these people in recent decades has filled prisons and destroyed lives and families without reducing the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations. There appears to be almost no limit to the number of people willing to engage in such activities to better their lives, provide for their families, or otherwise escape poverty. Drug control resources are better directed elsewhere.

Invest in activities that can both prevent young people from taking drugs in the first place and also prevent those who do use drugs from developing more serious problems. Eschew simplistic ‘just say no’ messages and ‘zero tolerance’ policies in favor of educational efforts grounded in credible information and prevention programs that focus on social skills and peer influences. The most successful prevention efforts may be those targeted at specific at-risk groups.

Focus repressive actions on violent criminal organizations, but do so in ways that undermine their power and reach while prioritizing the reduction of violence and intimidation. Law enforcement efforts should focus not on reducing drug markets per se but rather on reducing their harms to individuals, communities and national security. 
Begin the transformation of the global drug prohibition regime. Replace drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights – and adopt appropriate criteria for their evaluation. Review the scheduling of drugs that has resulted in obvious anomalies like the flawed categorization of cannabis, coca leaf and MDMA. Ensure that the international conventions are interpreted and/or revised to accommodate robust experimentation with harm reduction, decriminalization and legal regulatory policies.

Break the taboo on debate and reform. The time for action is now. 

1 comment:

  1. Sol, I have no idea how you have time to write these really excellent entries, but I'm passing your blog link around to friends :)