The Cost and Consequences of the War on Drugs

Human Rights Foundation

By: Alvaro Piaggio & Prachi Vidwans

This week, we’re launching the Human Rights Foundation’s (HRF) first-ever drug policy report: The Cost and Consequences of the War on Drugs.

This project was kickstarted over a year ago with a panel at the 2018 Oslo Freedom Forum, where experts — including International Narcotics Control Board member Francisco Thoumi — discussed the serious, negative impact that international drug prohibition has had on human rights. What we heard from our panelists and other activists in the HRF community is that international human rights organizations are not doing enough work in the drug policy arena. Activists did not feel supported. They felt there was so much more the human rights community should be doing to address the root causes of violence and suffering in places affected by the drug war.

With that inspiration, HRF launched an in-depth study to connect the dots between drug policy and human rights violations. We wanted to understand the mechanisms that link drug prohibition to the horrific violence, disappearances, health problems, and destabilization affecting states along the drug supply chain.

Part I of the report takes a broad view, examining the origins of the war on drugs to ask whether it’s met its goals.

  • What has the war on drugs cost, monetarily?
  • What has it cost in terms of human rights?
  • Ultimately, was it worth it?

We find that the war on drugs has failed to meet its goal of ending drug consumption and abuse (which was a pretty unrealistic goal to begin with). Prohibition policies — zero-tolerance protocols that criminalize production, possession, and use of drugs — have failed to permanently reduce production, increase the retail cost of drugs, or affect consumption rates at the international level. And yet the world spends upwards of $100 billion per year fighting this war, and losing.

Part II of the report dives deep into three case studies:

These three countries are part of a common trafficking route for cocaine, which is produced using the coca plant, which only grows in the Andes, and shipped along land routes through Mexico to its final destination in the United States. Each of these countries has implemented prohibition in different ways, and the case studies examine those policies and their human rights outcomes. In Mexico and Colombia, the state’s efforts to clamp down on illicit markets have often, inadvertently, empowered criminal organizations and armed groups. This, in turn, has fueled violence and corruption, leading to serious civil rights violations. In the U.S., minorities have been disproportionately targeted by a system that has, for decades, treated drug policy as a criminal matter.

These outcomes constitute the answer to that final question, “Is it worth it?” The answer is no.

The most disturbing and unusual finding from this section is about drug policy’s impact on democracy. Each of these countries had serious, pre-existing flaws within their democracies — corruption, state weakness, institutional racism, etc. — and prohibition served to exacerbate these flaws. In Mexico, for example, cartels took advantage of weak rule of law to act with impunity. This has escalated to threatening, abusing, and even killing journalists, civil society members, elected officials, and candidates. In the report, we make a preliminary effort to draw a line between prohibition policies, resultant market incentives, and human rights outcomes, and find that the war on drugs constitutes a serious threat to democracy. Human rights and democracy cannot flourish if prohibitionist policies prey on the institutions that uphold them.

There isn’t enough research on the danger drug prohibition poses to democracy. Generally speaking, researchers acknowledge that there is some connection, but academic articles addressing this specific topic are limited. But since HRF focuses on authoritarianism and democracy, we thought this was the best way for us to contribute to drug policy discussion. Part II, therefore, pays special attention to the drug war’s effect on civil and political rights: the right to free speech, opinion, and expression; the right to assembly; the right to vote; etc.

Neither researcher on this report was a drug policy expert at the start of this project, and we’ve benefited greatly from the expertise and generosity of others in this field. During the research phase, we spoke to experts including economist Daniel Mejía Lodoño, activist Aram Barra, OsloFF speaker Lisa Sánchez, Transform Drug Policy head Steve Rolles, and many more. We traveled to Mexico City in February to attend the Oslo Freedom Forum, and while there, met with activists and civil society leaders like Griselda Triana and Elementa’s Adriana Muro Polo, who really changed the way we thought about the drug war.

We capped off our research period with another panel at the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum, this one titled, “The Drug War vs. Democracy,” where we were lucky enough to hear from Brookings researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown, Drug Policy Alliance Director María McFarland Sánchez Moreno, and Filipina activist Inez Feria. As we said that day, we hope this panel and report is just the start of a longer conversation about the drug war and political systems. We encourage you to read our report and add to this incredibly important conversation yourself.

What’s become abundantly clear is that prohibition is simply not working as a policy — and that domestic policy changes in one nation will not suffice to rectify the errors of the war on drugs. What we need now is deep, paradigmatic reform at the international level. Activists have been clamoring for this kind of change for ages, and we are starting to see some shifts at the U.N. level that were unthinkable a decade ago. International human rights organizations need to do more to support drug policy activists by joining this movement. HRF is on board. This report is just the first phase; stay tuned for more.

Read the report on the HRF website

Watch Oslo Freedom Forum talks on the war on drugs:

Human Rights Foundation

Written by

Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonprofit that promotes freedom where it is most at risk. We produce the Oslo Freedom Forum (@OsloFF)

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade