America's longest running war -- the one against drugs -- came in for abuse this weekend at the Summit of the Americas. The abuse is deserved. Forty years of increasingly violent efforts to stamp out the drug trade haven't worked. And the blood and treasure lost is on a scale with America's more conventional wars. On the upside, we know that an approach based around treating drugs as a public health issue reaps benefits to both users and the rest of us.
President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala opened the rhetorical offensive against the drug war last week when he wrote that "decades of big arrests and the seizure of tons of drugs" have not stopped "booming" production and consumption. Molina argued that "global drug policy today is based on a false premise: that the global drug markets can be eradicated." Drug abuse, like alcoholism, should be treated as a public health problem, he suggested. We should consider a move towards drug regulation -- including taxation and prohibition of sales to minors. As this weekend's discussion made clear, Molina's statement represents region-wide concern with the business-as-usual strategy towards drugs. Indeed, most of Latin America has already moved towards decriminalization of drug possession in small amounts, and some are considering legalization.
But it isn't just in Latin America that the winds of change are blowing when it comes to drugs policy. Last June, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which included Kofi Annan, three former presidents from Latin America, a prime minister and former president from Europe, former Fed Chair Paul Volker and former Secretary of State George Shultz, concluded much the same thing as Molina. "The global war on drugs has failed," they reported. It is high time to move towards experimentation with "models of legal regulation."
As a domestic policy, a harsh enforcement approach has done little to control drug use, but has done a lot to lock up a growing portion of the U.S. population. Cocaine and opiate prices are about half their 1990 levels in in America today. And 16 percent of American adults have tried cocaine -- that's about four times higher than any other surveyed country in a list that includes Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, France, and Germany. And while criminalization has a limited impact on price and use, it has a significant impact on crime rates. Forty percent of drug arrests in the United States are for the simple possession of marijuana. Nearly half a million people are behind bars in the United States for a drug offense -- that's more than ten times the figure in 1980.
As a result, the United States is spending about $40 billion per year on the war on drugs -- with three quarters of that expenditure on apprehending and punishing dealers and users. All of those police out there slapping cuffs on folks found with a baggie of Purple Kush aren't watching for drunk drivers or burglars. And drug enforcement is more closely linked with violent crime than drug use. Meanwhile, the cost of lost productivity from jailed citizens is around $39 billion per year. Such sums are considerably higher than the costs of ill-health associated with drug use, suggesting in strict economic terms at least that it isn't drugs -- but drug control policy -- that is the problem. Add in the social effects of mass incarceration (from rape to split families to unemployment to poverty) and the uncertain benefits of the war on drugs become dwarfed by the known costs.
Harsh enforcement hasn't failed as a policy only in the United States, of course. Across countries, analysis by World Bank economists Philip Keefer, Norman Loayaza, and Rodrigo Soares suggests that drug prosecution rates or the number of police in a country has no effect on drug prices.
Conversely, the Global Commission on Drug Policy report compiled evidence suggesting that approaches based on treatment rather than punishment were far more effective in reducing consumption, HIV prevalence, and crime rates among users. For example, Britain and Germany, both of which long ago adopted harm reduction strategies for people injecting drugs -- programs that include needle exchange programs and medication -- see HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs below 5 percent. The United States and Portugal, by contrast, where such strategies were introduced later or only partially, see HIV prevalence among a similar community at above 15 percent.