Over 40 years ago, the world declared war on drugs. Today, drugs are cheaper, purer and more widely available than ever before, at least on a global scale. So should we admit defeat and start looking for alternatives?

That’s the opinion of doctors from the BMJ – the most widely read medical journal in Britain – who last month called for a rethink of current policies.

“The war on drugs has failed,” the article argues. “There is an imperative to investigate more effective alternatives to criminalization of drug use and supply.”

They join a growing chorus of experts who are pushing for a new approach to the problem.

An expensive, destructive war

Most people who argue for reform point to the war on drug’s devastating effects. “Drugs have destroyed many people. But bad governmental policies have destroyed more,” former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan argued in Davos two years ago, in a session on the drugs debate.

   Kofi Annan: Drugs have destroyed many people. But bad governmental policies have destroyed even more.

The destruction comes in different forms. For starters, the criminalization of drugs fuels a violent international narcotics trade, which is eye-wateringly expensive to police. The US, for example, spent $1 trillion trying to get on top of the problem over a 40-year period.

It not only drains government coffers, it also lines the pockets of criminals. An illicit market is by its very nature difficult to quantify, but 2013 estimates had the drugs trade valued at $430 billion – with every single cent going to drug lords who have helped foment unrest and violence, from the slums of Medellín to the inner cities of Chicago.

And while the leaders of international drug cartels escape punishment, otherwise law-abiding citizens are turned into criminals. In the US, for example, every 25 seconds someone is arrested for personal drugs possession. As a recent report from the ACLU found, the effects can be devastating: “I met people who were prosecuted for tiny amounts of drugs – in one case an amount so small that the laboratory couldn’t even weigh it. That man was sentenced to 15 years in Texas.”

Of the 1,488,707 arrests for drug law violations in 2015 in the US, 83.9% were for possession of a controlled substance. Only 16.1% were for the sale or manufacturing of a drug.

Nothing to show for it

But the biggest argument in favour of reform is even simpler: not only has the war on drugs been destructive; it just hasn’t worked.

“It has been a disaster,” Human Rights Watch chief Kenneth Roth argued at Davos in 2015.

As these charts from the latest UN World Drugs report show, the approach so far has done little to suppress demand. In 2014, one in 20 people around the world used at least one drug.

Global trends in the use and prevalence of drugs
Image: United Nations

In fact, the policy of criminalization could even be exacerbating the problem, deterring users from seeking help when they need it. That seems to be the case in countries like the UK, where drug deaths this year hit an all-time high, or the US, where a record number of people died through drug overdoses in 2014.

A politically difficult alternative: legalization

The alternative to this decade-old policy of criminalization is for many people still a controversial one: legalization.

Opponents to reform advance two arguments. The first, as former Texan governor Rick Perry explained in Davos, is simple: “It sends the message that drugs are OK.” What this view fails to consider is that just because something is legal – smoking or drinking while pregnant, for example – does not mean it is socially acceptable.

Signs in a New York bar warn of the dangers of drinking while pregnant.
Signs in a New York bar warn of the dangers of drinking while pregnant.
Image: Chicago Tribune

The second argument is that legalization would increase demand: “Legalization, by removing penalties and reducing price, would increase drug demand. Make something easier and cheaper to obtain, and you increase the number of people who will try it,” John P. Walters, the former Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, argued in 2002.

According to research from the Economist, this second argument is just as questionable as the first. “There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer.”

Are we brave enough to make a change?

As unpalatable as the idea might be to some, for most experts on the issue, there really is no alternative. “Virtually everyone now agrees that the war on drugs has been a spectacular failure by almost every measure,” Ilona Szabó de Carvalho of the Igarapé Institute argued on this blog last year.

By legalizing but strictly regulating both the supply and consumption of drugs – as many countries and some US states have started to do with marijuana – governments can take back control from the gangs and drug traffickers.

The money generated through taxes and saved on law enforcement could then be ploughed back into policies that might be more successful: education programmes to teach people of the dangers of drug abuse, as well as treatment centres for addicts.

Sometimes, when you get something wrong, it’s easier to keep doing it than to admit you made a mistake. But as Kofi Annan pointed out two years ago in Davos, the time now is for bold decisions.

“We need to look at the policy and ask ourselves simply, sincerely and honestly: is it working? And if it’s not, we must have the courage to change it.”