The U.N.’s War on Drugs is a Total Failure

The war on drugs is a global failure. Now we have the statistics to prove it.

On Monday, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), a global network of 177 NGOs focused on drug production, trafficking and use, released a report detailing the disastrous consequences of the United Nations’ approach to global drug policy. Guidelines the U.N. drew up in 2009 set 2019 as the target for eradicating the world’s illegal drug market and advised countries to take a hardline approach to drug use to combat the international drug trade. Instead of disrupting the global drug market, the U.N.’s recommendations have led to a striking increase in addiction, incarceration, drug cultivation and drug-related death.

“This report is another nail in the coffin for the war on drugs,” said IDPC Executive Director Ann Fordham. “The fact that governments and the U.N. do not see fit to properly evaluate the disastrous impact of the last 10 years of drug policy is depressingly unsurprising.”

Drawing on U.N. data, the IDPC report illustrates that the global war on drugs has failed to reduce substance abuse but succeeded in causing widespread destruction. Governments executed nearly 4,000 people for a drug offenses over the last decade. One in every five prisoners around the world are incarcerated for drug offenses, mostly for possession. And in the United States, more than 71,000 people died from overdose in 2017 alone.

But perhaps the report’s most harrowing statistic is the 145 percent increase in global drug-related deaths over the last decade. IDPC estimates there were more than 450,000 drug-related deaths in 2015. With U.N. members set to approve another decade of criminalization-focused drug policy next March, we can expect the destruction to continue.

The United Nations’ Office of Drug and Crime sets what are essentially guidelines for U.N. member countries’ drug policies. When the U.N. announced its desire to eradicate drugs more than a decade ago, countries reacted by adopting stringent drug policies. The IDPC wrote and published the report because of the U.N.’s inability (or lack of willingness) to acknowledge this colossal failure.

“This objective has justified [U.N.] member states adopting extremely repressive strategies all over the world,” says Marie Nougier, head of communications for IDPC. “That has translated into mass incarceration, loads of arrests—any kind of policy that governments think would deter people from participating in drug activity.”

The report highlights the Philippines, a country that recently adopted strikingly harsh drug policy. Since president Rodrigo Duterte’s election in 2016, there have been more than 27,000 extrajudicial killings due to drug crackdowns in the country. Duterte’s hardline stance on drugs got him elected and has spread throughout southeast Asia, but has done little to quell drug abuse. While countries like Malaysia and Vietnam are quick to administer the death penalty to drug offenders, they’ve seen little decrease in actual usage.

Portugal has proven that drug decriminalization works since the country adopted the policy in 2001. Portugal focuses on harm reduction, meaning law enforcement administers fines instead of prison sentences and criminal records. The IDPC report recommends harm reduction strategies to reduce the damage done by harmful drug policies over the last decade. The hope is that expending energy on treatment rather than enforcement will ultimately curb drug use in the long term.

But governments will continue to prioritize criminalization because it looks tough and wins votes. And as long as they do, the world’s drug problems will only get worse.