Illegal Drugs Cheaper and Stronger, Despite War on Drugs

The world market has cheaper and more potent illegal drugs, despite law enforcement efforts to curb supply, according to a new study published this week in the British Medical Journal Open. The report follows calls to the United Nations from Latin American leaders to refocus the 52-year-old global War on Drugs.

The International Centre for Science in Drug Policy analyzed two decades of “global drug surveillance data” and found that “there has been a general pattern of increased illegal drug supply, as defined through lower price, and higher purity of heroin, cocaine and cannabis (marijuana).”

Street prices of drugs, adjusted for inflation and purity, fell in real terms between 1990 and 2010, according to the Vancouver-based center. Statistics also show a substantial and consistent increase in the amount of illegal drugs seized by law enforcement agencies during the same time span.

The center’s researchers highlight the need to re-examine the effectiveness of counternarcotics tactics that put “disproportionate emphasis on supply reduction.”

Drug use should be considered “a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue,” emphasizes study co-author Dr. Evan Wood, scientific chair of the centre and Canada research chair in Inner City Medicine at the University of British Columbia.

The study used seven drug surveillance systems to assess indicators of illegal drug markets in Europe, the United States, and Australia. Drug seizures were gauged for the drug producing regions of Latin America, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia.

Wood notes that current efforts to shrink the illicit drug supply are “unlikely to be successful” and that there is a “clear” need for other strategies that can “effectively reduce drug-related harm.”

Growing Consensus

More and more Latin American leaders are recognizing that the War on Drugs must change from its dynamic centered primarily on prohibition, or continue its losing battle.

meme-otto-perez-molinaCosta Rica, Guatemala, Colombia, and México joined in a renewed call to reform the global strategy on drugs during last week’s 68th UN General Assembly. “We must assess the internationally agreed policies, in search of more effective results from the perspective of health, a framework of respect of human rights, and a perspective of lessening damages . . . especially reducing the level of violence . . . cooperation should be strengthened to reduce the flow of illegal arms and funds that finance criminal networks.”

“Fifty-two years ago, the convention that gave birth to the war on drugs was approved. Today, we must acknowledge, that war has not been won,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told the General Assembly. “And I say this as the president of the country which has suffered more deaths, more blood and more sacrifices in this war.”

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, elected in 2011 on the promise of cracking down on organized crime, reminded the UN that “the war against drugs has not borne the desired results, and that we cannot continue doing the same, waiting for different results.” Pérez Molina last year was the first sitting leader to suggest “regulation to allow legal access of drugs currently prohibited” at a General Assembly.

Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia, and José Miguel Insulza, OAS secretary general, at the release of “The Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas

Santos said the UN should discuss and include the Organization of American States’ May 2013 study on new approaches to dealing with illicit drugs before the General Assembly Special Session on Drugs set for 2016. “This is a global problem that requires a global solution.”

Meanwhile, Uruguay this month is set to pass benchmark legislation that would make it the first country on the continent to create a fully-legal marijuana market.

Policymakers believe “drugs are harmful, therefore they must be kept illegal,” says Fernando Cardoso, the former president of Brazil and a proponent of drug policy reform. “What they fail to consider is, as this and other research suggests, that drugs are more harmful — to society, individuals, and the taxpayer — precisely because they are illegal.”

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