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War on Drugs

The global war on drugs failed. Vast expenditures failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Apparent victories are negated by the emergence of other sources and traffickers. Incarcerating millions has filled prisons without reducing the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations. War on Drugs policing has failed in its stated goal of reducing domestic street-level drug activity: the cost of drugs on the street remains low and drugs remain widely available.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment, indicates that more than 46,000 people in the United States die each year from drug abuse, compared to around 35,000 deaths in automobile accidents and 33,000 deaths associated with firearms.

A panel of top global narcotics experts fronted by prominent public figures including Kofi Annan, Richard Branson and eight ex-national presidents, strongly urged that drugs be a matter for health professionals, not the police, in a report issued in September 2014. “Overwhelming evidence points to not just the failure of the drug control regime to attain its stated goals but also the horrific unintended consequences of punitive and prohibitionist laws and policies,” states the study, published by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP).

“A new and improved global drug control regime is needed that better protects the health and safety of individuals and communities around the world,” the report says. “Harsh measures grounded in repressive ideologies must be replaced by more humane and effective policies shaped by scientific evidence, public health principles and human rights standards.”

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto proposed legalizing marijuana for medical purposes and easing limits for personal use of the drug. A number of current and former Latin American presidents called for all drugs to be decriminalized during a three day United Nations summit held in April 2016 in New York. The session, called UNgass, showed deep divisions remain between member states over narcotics policy. UN member states are required to impose prohibitionist policies banning narcotics use, a model promoted by the U.S., which many world leaders argue has proven to be “ineffective and counter-productive."

Some believe the White House is trying to steer Latin American nations toward legalizing marijuana by conducting legalization experiments in Washington and Colorado. The head of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service Viktor Ivanov said 24 December 2014 that Washington was trying to distract Latin America from the problem of cocaine production in Colombia, and suggests that legalizing marijuana can resolve it. "This is a geopolitical question, not a drug-tackling one," Ivanov said.

By 2015 there was an opinion that the United States, with the connivance of the federal government through referendums, was preparing the ground for the liberalization of drugs. Storage of small amounts of marijuana for therapeutic purposes was already allowed in four states - Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska. Referendums on the legalization of marijuana were planned in California, Maine, Florida, Arizona, Massachusetts and Nevada. This approach to the problem of drug legalization finds strong support in a number of Latin American countries. Several states of this region are going to make serious concessions to supporters of legalization of narcotic drugs. Key US officials - Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of the National Drug Control Policy and Michele Leonhart DEA Administrator were saidto ahve been dismissed from their posts precisely because of their uncompromising stand against “legalisers”.

The amount spent annually in the US on the war on drugs is more than $50,000,000,000. The region with the world’s largest illicit drug market is North America, though no region is spared. Like other sectors of activity in which goods or services are traded for a profit, the illicit drug economy is governed essentially by the law of supply and demand. Thus cocaine and heroin retail for many times their weight in gold, while their potential legal price may be similar to that of coffee.

The extent of global illicit drug use remained stable in the five years up to and including 2010, at between 3.4 and 6.6 per cent of the adult population (persons aged 15-64). Cannabis is the world’s most widely used illicit substance: there are between 119 million and 224 million cannabis users worldwide. Latest available data indicate that there has been no significant change in the global status quo regarding the use, production and health consequences of illicit drugs, other than the return to high levels of opium production in Afghanistan after a disease of the opium poppy and subsequent crop failure in 2010. UNODC estimates suggest that the value of Afghan traders’ opiate-related sales was equivalent to slightly more than 60 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2004.

There has been an overall decline in global manufacture of cocaine, prompted by a major decline in cocaine manufacture in Colombia in the five-year period 2006-2010. A sizeable shift has taken place as coca bush cultivation and coca production increased in the same period in the other two coca-producing countries, Bolivia (Plurinational State of ) and Peru, which are becoming increasingly important producers. A core objective of the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances was to disrupt the large drug cartels that had emerged in the 1980s. A few years later, the world’s largest drug cartels were dismantled in Colombia. The dismantling of the large cocaine cartels led to profound changes on the illicit drug market. A large number of smaller drug trafficking groups emerged, which led to intensified competition.

Drug prices — cocaine prices in particular — fell markedly. Expressed in constant 2009 United States dollars, the value of the world’s cocaine sales fell by nearly one half from 1995 to 2009, from $165 billion to $85 billion (range: $75-100 billion). For all illicit drugs, total retail sales were estimated at $320 billion in 2003. UNODC estimates that in 2009 drugs represented about one fifth of global criminal proceeds.

Global estimates suggest that past-month prevalence of tobacco use (25 per cent of the population aged 15 and above) is 10 times higher than past-month prevalence of illicit drug use (2.5 per cent). Annual prevalence of the use of alcohol is 42 per cent (the use of alcohol being legal in most countries), which is eight times higher than annual prevalence of illicit drug use (5.0 per cent). Heavy episodic weekly drinking is eight times more prevalent than problem drug use. Drug use accounts for 0.9 per cent of all disability-adjusted life years lost at the global level, or 10 per cent of all life years lost as a result of the consumption of psychoactive substances (drugs, alcohol and tobacco).

The first drug war was the First Opium War, 1839-42, when Britain attacked China, to force the Chinese to admit imports of British Opium. The modern “war on drugs,” as it came to be known, can be said to have begun in November 1880 when an “absolute prohibition” on the shipment of opium between the United States and China was agreed to in treaty negotiations between the two countries. The drug war escalated, in fits and starts, until 1971 when President Nixon declared the modern war on drugs. He announced “a new, all-out offensive” against drug abuse, “America’s public enemy number one,” and created the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in the White House to coordinate the major federal drug abuse programs.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 (P.L. 100-690) stated: “It is the declared policy of the United States Government to create a Drug-Free America by 1995.” Drug abuse is no longer framed as a problem to be controlled but a problem to be eradicated. The war on drugs is now a national effort to reduce to zero the demand for illegal drugs in the United States.

What can done about this growing problem? One option is legalization, but Paul Stares contends that its implementation would be problematic while its benefits remain unclear. Yet, continuing on the present course will not work either. Stares argues that reducing both the supply and demand for illicit drugs requires a fundamental shift away from the current overwhelming emphasis on negative sanctions to deter and deny their production, trafficking, and consumption. Instead, he calls for more positive control measures that primarily rely on persuasion and cooperation. He advocates the creation of a global drug monitoring and evaluation network, a global drug use prevention program, a global drug treatment training program, and an international drug crisis response program.

According to Stares, the effectiveness of reorienting drug control policy to curb the global habit will ultimately depend on the international community's willingness to address much larger concerns to which the drug problem is inextricably linked-- including overpopulation, environmental degradation, poverty, illiteracy, ethnic strife, and disease. Only by recognizing the fundamental relationship between these larger issues and the global drug problem can meaningful progress be made.

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy convened by former presidents Cardoso of Brazil, Gaviria of Colombia and Zedillo of Mexico. Persuaded that the association between drug trade, violence and corruption was a threat to democracy in Latin America, the Commission reviewed the current ‘war on drugs’ policies and opened a public debate about an issue that tends to be surrounded by fear and misinformation. These goals were fulfilled with the publication on February 2009 of the Commission’s statement, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift.

This stated "Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the desired results. Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade are critical problems in Latin America today. Confronted with a situation that is growing worse by the day, it is imperative to rectify the “war on drugs” strategy pursued in the region over the past 30 years."

The Global Commission on Drug Policy includes Kofi Annan [Former Secretary General of the United Nations], Paul Volcker [Former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve], George Shultz [Former Secretary of State, United States], and former Presidents or Prime Minister of Brazil, Chile, Colômbia, Greece, Mexico, Poland, and Portugal. It states that there is a growing perception that the ‘war on drugs’ approach has failed. Eradication of production and criminalization of consumption did not reduce drug traffic and drug use. In many countries the harm caused by drug prohibition in terms of corruption, violence and violation of human rights largely exceeds the harm caused by drugs.

The Organization of American States, an intergovernmental organization of 31 member States, has given the highest priority to the promotion of co-operative inter-American action to combat drug problems. In resolution 699, adopted at its Fourteenth Regular Meeting in November 1984, the General Assembly of the Organization of American States recognized drug trafficking as a crime affecting all of mankind.

The years since 2010 saw a much more active and intense discussion of drug policies in the Western Hemisphere. There appeared to be greater openness now to a dialogue on current policies and, in some sectors, a willingness to explore nontraditional approaches to the subject. The intensity of the violence associated with drug trafficking - especially in countries affected by the production, transit, and trafficking of illegal drugs - has been the principal factor in driving the concern of senior level officials in becoming more actively engaged in this debate. Other factors include shifts in drug consumption patterns in the Hemisphere, increased prevalence of drug use, violence affecting the most vulnerable segments of society, and growing demand for health care services to treat addictions.

Factoring in the multigenerational, marginal consequences of austere drug policy — including the effects of collateral sanctions for drug convictions, the diversion of resources from drug treatment to law enforcement, the trickle-down effects of imprisonment on families and communities, the racist police profiling that comes hand in hand with anti-narcotics efforts and the violence that accompanies black market economies — it’s hard to overstate the connection between prohibitionist drug policies and mass incarceration.

Reflecting their concerns over the impact of drug-related violence and the continuous flow of drugs in the region, hemispheric leaders, former Heads of State, academics, and representatives of civil society have supported the adoption of policies geared to downplaying the role of the criminal justice system in drug control. Reports by high-level groups, such as the Global Commission on Drug Policy, emphasize the need to reduce the harms done to the health, security, and well-being of individuals and society, and favor an approach in which drug use is treated as a public health issue and consumption reduced through evidence-based prevention campaigns. Among other recommendations, they also encourage experimenting with legal regulation models for certain drugs. The decriminalization of possession for personal use in many countries, while reducing the burden on consumers and the judicial system, has not resulted in increased use.

The Organization of American States ended its general assembly meeting 07 June 2013 without including the themes of decriminalizing or legalizing drugs in its final declaration, as some countries had hoped. The final Declaration of the Assembly encouraged the consideration of new approaches to the world drug problem in the Americas based on scientific knowledge and evidence. The approved text also suggested that “it is necessary, based on the principle of common and shared responsibility, to bolster and promote hemispheric cooperation by mobilizing different resources,” recognizing “the different impacts and manifestations of the world drug problem in each country” and by using for this purpose “mechanisms for the exchange of information and experiences among countries.”

In the United States, it is worth noting that, although marijuana use is still illegal in most states, changes in public opinion were reflected in the 2012 vote to legalize that substance in two states and most citizens agree that marijuana should be legalized and regulated.

When President Nixon in 1971 declared war on drugs, he directed 60 percent of the funding to treatment. President Ford followed suit, President Carter declared war on drugs, President Reagan did, President Bush did. Congress has declared war on drugs. The Democrats have declared war on drugs. The Republicans have declared war on drugs. By 2007 President Bush allocated a 94 percent share to disrupting the supply, mainly through environmentally hazardous spraying in Latin America and the Caribbean that alienates local farmers. From the beginning, the United States has pursued a strategy focused on the supply-side of the issue, emphasizing eradication, interdiction, and incarceration and has pressured the government of Mexico to employ the same strategy at every opportunity. However, over the course of time, the U.S. and Mexican governments have pursued the strategy dictated by Washington to relatively little effect.

The criminalization of large swathes of the population may have pernicious consequences in the sense of “naturalizing” crime and transgressions of the law in an ever larger segment of the population, in addition to the “normalization” of criminal activities as the illegal drugs economy expands, whereby both phenomena undermine social cohesion. Making illegal activity “natural” and violating the rule of law are two ways of eroding adherence to standards and institutions.

The domestic results in the US are an enormous increase in the incarceration of young, disproportionately minority Americans, resulting in the creation of a prison culture that converts nonviolent offenders into hardened criminals. Although race is not an inherently suspicious characteristic, research studies reveal that race is a factor in probable cause and reasonable suspicion for pretextual traffic stops, arrests and civil seizures involving thousands of African-Americans and other minorities. These traffic stops occur with such regularity that they are known in minority 65 communities as a moving violation for "driving while black" (DWB).

Young male African-Americans and Hispanics are especially vulnerable to such traffic stops due to certain racial profiling characteristics, such as driving late model or expensive cars, traveling at night and especially in the wrong part of town or in an affluent neighborhood, driving with two or more minority males in the car, "leaning," wearing gold jewelry, expensive clothing and dark glasses, having gold or diamond-studded teeth, sporting vogue or cultural hairstyles, listening to "hip-hop" and other loud music, and carrying beepers.

US law-enforcement officers increasingly use pretextual traffic stops to interdict drug traffickers along the nation's interstate highways known as high volume connectors in the drug trade, such as along the Interstate 95 corridor from New England to Florida. On the stretch of I-95 in Maryland, black drivers accounted for only 14 percent of the drivers but represented 73 percent of those stopped and searched.

Some countries are facing relatively high rates of illicit drug use and its related consequences in terms of public health and criminal behavior. Other countries are not among the leading users of controlled substances, but are exposed to higher levels of violence, triggered in part by actions by the security forces to counter illegal drug production, trafficking, and transit and the criminal violence associated with them.

The prominence of heroin and cocaine in illicit drug markets may continue to decline. In contrast, there are no signs that the popularity of cannabis is going to decrease significantly. Cannabis is likely to remain the most widely used illegal substance, and the use of a broad range of licit and illicit synthetic drugs is likely to continue to increase.

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Page last modified: 11-06-2017 13:20:14 ZULU