Claudio Toledo

U.S. News


It’s Time to Break Our Addiction to Deadly Drug Laws

On the eve of a United Nations session devoted to illegal narcotics, an international commission made up of medical experts called on governments worldwide to reverse repressive and counterproductive policies on drugs and argued for global drug decriminalization. The commission, which was established by the Lancet medical journal and Johns Hopkins University in the United States, has concluded that, rather than decreasing drug use, draconian drug laws have bolstered organized crime, led to serious increases in violent crime, and increased the spread of devastating diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

The decades-long War on Drugs has done little to curb drug use and has instead resulted in cartel wars and countless deaths. In the same fashion as alcohol prohibition fostered the rise of widespread violence in the United States, today’s drug prohibition leads to violence. The vast sums of cash raised by the drug trade are not only reinvested in the production of drugs, but also fund other criminal enterprises as well.

During Prohibition, the crime of kidnapping for ransom, which is fairly capital intensive (scouting out the victim, transporting him, keeping watch on him 24/7, communicating with the authorities, safely picking up the ransom, etc.) skyrocketed in the US.

After the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, kidnappings declined. Similarly, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, kidnapping in Colombia, which was then the epicenter of illicit drug production, was a land-office business. Now that Mexico has taken its place, the kidnapping epidemic has followed it.

The War on Drugs has spawned more than just kidnappings. According to the Lancet commission, Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s decision to use the military to fight the drug cartels in 2006, “ushered in an epidemic of violence in many parts of the country that also spilled into Central America,” explains the report. “The increase in homicides in Mexico since 2006 is virtually unprecedented in a country not formally at war. It was so great in some parts of the country that it contributed to a reduction in the country’s projected life expectancy.”

Today’s argument, which has been echoed by former world leaders, rests on the belief that the UN and its members should decriminalize minor, non-violent drug offences involving the use, possession and sale of small quantities. In the book Ending the War on Drugs, former presidents of Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria and Switzerland, as well as a former deputy prime minister of Britain and various scientists, make the argument in favor of decriminalization. The “War,” as these world leaders point out, costs taxpayers about US$100 billion per annum but has grossed organized crime three times that amount in revenues each year. More than 1.4 million arrests for drug crimes are made each year in the United States alone, with African-Americans being the target ten times more often than their Caucasian counterparts.

The decriminalization, control, and taxation of drugs can bring about huge tax benefits for governments as well. In Colorado, tax revenues from cannabis in the first seven months of 2015 reached $73.5 million, far above predicted figures. The state eventually collected $135 million for the year, with over $35 million earmarked for school construction projects. Similarly, an article in the Financial Times revealed that just the legalization and taxation of marijuana in the UK could bring in an extra £1 billion in taxes.

However, taxation is a slippery slope and governments would need to be careful to ensure that taxes aren’t too high. Indeed, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron argues that while drugs should be legalized and taxed by governments “a substantial tax is a bad idea because it would increase the incentive to set up a black market again.”

Take the tobacco industry for example: although cigarettes remain legal, many governments have raised taxes so high that there is now a booming illicit tobacco trade that funds everything from organized crime to terrorism. For instance, cigarette taxes in the state and city of New York have spawned a booming black market in cigarettes. As the taxes per pack in New York State are $4 higher than in near by Virginia, an enterprising criminal can potentially make thousands with a trunk full of Virginia cigarettes in New York, or even millions with a semi-trailer full of them.

Additionally, and surprisingly, decriminalization of small drug offenses has been shown to lower drug usage rates, as well as having other peripheral benefits related to problems endemic to the practice of illicit drug use. The Lancet report cites Portugal and the Czech Republic as examples, pointing out that these countries have experienced “significant financial savings, less incarceration, significant public health benefits, and no significant increase in drug use.” According to a report by the International Drug Policy Consortium, after a brief but marginal bump, Portugal experienced a drop in drug use. What’s more, the rate of HIV/AIDS dropped precipitously – infection rates in the country dropped almost 95 percent in less than a decade.

While wholesale legalization of drugs overnight is not likely nor advisable, the benefits of easing the laws are undeniable. The members of the United Nations owe it to their citizens to take the courageous yet logical step of following the Lancet commission’s recommendations and begin to work towards worldwide drug decriminalization.