Here Are 5 Reasons It’s Time to Call Off the Global War on Drugs

Protesters in 48 countries around the world called for new drug policies on Thursday.

(Photo: Thierry Falise/Getty Images)

Jun 26, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

One year ago today, China rang in the United Nations’ International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking by executing three men and sentencing four others to death for charges of drug trafficking.

While the U.N. celebrates this “holiday” to share and promote best practices for preventing global drug abuse, many governments use the day as an excuse to criminalize drug users and harshly punish them.

Last year, an international coalition of activists responded by reclaiming June 26 as a day to educate the global community about the failures and devastating consequences of the war on drugs. Today marks the second Global Day of Action, with rallies and demonstrations taking place in major cities 48 countries around the world, from Paris to Bogotá to Nairobi.

These events are guided by one overarching campaign request: Support, don’t punish, drug users. The coalition points out that drug use should be approached as a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue, which is why it’s important to turn the U.N.’s holiday on its head and raise awareness of the human rights abuses that affect drug users around the world.

So how do we know the war on drugs isn’t working? Here are just a few of the many reasons it’s time to wave the white flag.

1. There’s a Revolving Door of Recidivism

More than 76 percent of drug offenders in the U.S. return to prison within five years of their release. You know how we call it our correctional system? Apparently it isn’t “correcting” much of anything. Locking people up for using drugs does next to nothing to address drug abuse and addiction, which is recognized by medical professionals as a chronic disease. It’s time to stop pretending our jails and prisons can meet the needs of this population when recidivism rates for drug offenders prove otherwise.

2. We’re Ignoring More Successful Approaches

Portugal decriminalized all drugs 12 years ago, and the results are promising. After experts in the country recognized the failure of drug criminalization, they started sending people found in possession of small amounts of drugs to a panel including a social worker, a psychologist, and a legal adviser instead of putting them behind bars. Meanwhile, drug use among teens has declined, rates of HIV infection caused by needle sharing have dropped, and the country reported half as many heroin-related deaths in the first five years of decriminalization.

3. The War on Drugs Is Spreading Disease

People who use needle drugs in countries with harsh drug penalties are at an extremely high risk of hepatitis C infection. Unforgiving drug laws discourage needle drug users from seeking help and usher them into underground communities where shared needles foster the rapid transmission of this highly infectious disease. According to Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland and current global drug policy commissioner, “The Hepatitis C epidemic, totally preventable and curable, is yet another proof that the drug policy status quo has failed us all miserably.”

4. The War on Drugs Discriminates

People of color bear the brunt of the war on drugs throughout the U.S. criminal justice system, from arrest to sentencing. Even though rates of drug use are similar across racial lines, more than 40 percent of those in state or federal prison for drug offenses are black, and black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than are whites.

5. Black Markets Mean Violence

Remember when alcohol was illegal in the U.S. and organized crime flourished, while alcohol consumption increased? Drug prohibition is a lot like that but on a global scale. In areas such as Mexico, studies show that increasing drug law enforcement increases the horrific violence we associate with the illicit drug trade.