Will we ever win the Drugs War?

CIA Map of International drug pipelines
International Drug Pipelines

President Richard Nixon is accredited with coining the phrase war on drugs back in 1971 however; is it really a war that can actually be won?

Since an oriental entrepreneur first realised the financial opportunities of supply & demand, and opened an Opium Den in London, our nation (who are not alone), has had a massive problem trying to combat the negative impacts of drugs.

Addictive drugs first faced widespread prohibition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but the so-called ‘war’ against the illegal drug trade is nothing new, it has been almost constant for centuries.

It all started with the Anglo-Chinese Wars (the First Opium War and Second Opium War), it progressed through the (continuing) issues in Central and South America and latterly, it still manifests itself in Afghanistan. Yet another ‘war’ that has claimed far too many lives during the military ‘policing’ efforts, irrespective of the additional terrorism context this time around.

Back in Victorian London, the media (and several popular British authors of the time) had a tendency towards the romanticism of many of the issues surrounding the illegal drug trade. They portrayed the City as an ‘opium-drenched pit of danger and mystery’ but mostly to boost the appeal of their publications. To be fair, London’s reputation as a centre of opium smoking at the time was mostly unjustified, but it did testify to the power of literary fiction over historical fact.

Much of the literary fiction of the past can also be seen in the media of today, especially (but not exclusively) when it comes to reporting on drugs and crime. To be fair to the media, much of the emotive and sensational headline methodology they use is actually based upon ‘official’ statistics. That and contrived PR campaigns issued by the government and police, both organisations who have a propensity for ‘cooking the books’ when it comes to producing crime figures (see here).

Media headlines and literature aside; there are (without doubt) far too many negative impacts upon our society which find their roots in drug taking and the illegal drug trade.

A report by the UK government‘s drug strategy unit (see here) stated that due to the price of highly addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine; drug use was responsible for the great majority of crime (little surprise there). It said; “The cost of crime committed to support illegal cocaine and heroin habits amounts to £16 billion a year in the UK” (a shocking figure you must agree).

Note: despite the fact this amount is more than the entire annual UK Home Office budget it should be remembered; without some serious research into the figures and ‘claims’ (which I and many others rarely have time to do), I would suggest they’re only used as indicative.

Between 2011 and 2012, an estimated 8.9% of adults in used an illegal drug. For young people aged between 16 and 24, the figure was 19.3%…(HM Govt)

Whilst people continue to take drugs, and all despite government claims suggesting the figures are actually in decline, demand will always dictate supply. It will also always provide an opportunity for nations and individuals to see a lucrative business opportunity. Is prohibition therefore a viable and effective answer any more? 

The Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) say not… In their publicity leaflet ‘Illegal Drugs: The Problem is Prohibition; The Solution is Control and Regulation’ the TDPF seeks to draw public attention to the fact that drug prohibition itself is the major cause of drug-related harm to individuals, communities and nations. They call for this prohibition to be replaced by “effective, just and humane government control and regulation.”

To mark the 50th anniversary of the war on drugs, TDPF along with a range of supporter organisations, launched Count the Costs, a global initiative to raise awareness of the unintended negative impacts of current policies. As the mainly punitive enforcement model which has dominated the ‘war on drugs’ for the last fifty years appears to have mostly failed our society, perhaps it really is time for some fresh thinking?

The disastrous unintended consequences of the war on drugs are so obvious even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime – the agency which oversees the current system – has been forced to acknowledge they exist…(Counting The Cost)

The TDPF suggest there are seven distinct but overlapping areas of cost to our society, all arising from the methods we currently use in our battle against drugs (see here). Despite having a good understanding of many of those issues and the realities  involved here, including those rarely espoused by our government, even I was able to learn from the website.

The saddest part about all this is not the financial cost (although undoubtedly substantial), it is the immense cost in human life. The bodies of thousands being expended with impunity by the few for exceptional personal fortunes – yet another aspect of social decline due to the greed of mankind. (I see a pattern forming with this money thing!)

But to illustrate this issue in summary and provide an answer to the original question; can we ever win the war on drugs? There’s probably about as much chance of that as there is of Barack Obama beating the NRA into submission and turning the USA into a gun free society!