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The War on Drugs is Lost. What is Next?

Billions of dollars have been spent on the "war on drugs" since US President Nixon initiated it in the 1970s, during which he declared drugs as "public enemy number one". The primary goal of this campaign was to discourage and reduce illegal drug trade. With this enormous objective, national and international efforts, including the police and the military, were heavily upscaled, and a baffling amount of people have been incarcerated (Lopez, 2016). Nevertheless, none of the goals have been achieved. In general, politicians are sceptical about taking on a different view, such as decriminalising, or even legalising drugs. The fact that the US policy on drugs has not made for any significant change, however, begs the question of whether alternatives to this war on drugs are perhaps a better fit. The data says yes.


Failure in Targetting Drug Supply

The first thing that one learns when studying economics is the classic relationship between supply and demand. If the supply of a product decreases, its price rises. With this thought, the war on drugs began with an aim to reduce the supply of drugs (Madden, 2008). Through the regulation of chemicals used as ingredients for the targeted drugs, the US government hoped to put local producers out of business (Dobkin & Nicosia, 2009). Although the government was very successful in doing so, the demand for drugs did not go down. The price, on the other hand, did go up, and as a result, larger criminal organisations saw an incredibly efficient and profit-making business model, leading to the creation of large and well-organised drug cartels. These organisations are, however, much more ruthless and violent in practice (Lopez, 2017).

Figure 1: The relation between supply and demand. If the supply decreases, the price rises (Perkis, 2021).

There is an overwhelming amount of data when it comes to the war on drugs. The amount of money spent by the USA alone to finance this operation has not been clearly determined. Though conservative estimates speak of 600 billion, some experts fear in actuality it may be over a trillion dollars (Piaggio & Vidwans, 2019). As the idea behind the war on drugs was to cut supply, those data should be looked at to argue whether the campaign was successful. When examining the production of drugs internationally, it is very clear that a decreasing trend has not been observed (McSweeney, 2020; Piaggio & Vidwans, 2019). Additionally, even though the amount of cocaine has not declined over the years, its price has. This means that the assumption of direct supply and demand is not always upheld in the drug market, as even a similar supply eventually leads to a decrease in price (Piaggio & Vidwans, 2019). One possible explanation is that farmers who make the raw products of drugs are not typical suppliers. A cartel that controls an area dictates the price of the raw materials of the farmer, instead of the farmer being able to sell these products to the highest bidder. For instance, consider a situation where the production of raw materials becomes harder. Price would increase in a typical free market since supply is decreasing. However, in this case where a cartel is involved, the cartel might still buy the products for the same price, meaning that the market price does not have to increase (Piaggio & Vidwans, 2019). Moreover, one final worrisome statistic is the prevalence of drug use disorders. In 1990, 2.99% of the adults in the US struggled with this disorder. The number steadily increased to 3.31% in 2016 (Piaggio & Vidwans, 2019). In other words, an incredible sum of money was spent on a goal that seems unobtainable.

Figure 2: The number of drug use disorders over time in the USA and in Western Europe (Piaggio & Vidmans, 2019).

Internationally, the war on drugs, mostly pushed by the United States, has been heavily criticised. A monstrous amount of money has been spent on fighting the illegal industry with little positive effect. Experts call this the balloon effect, which is composed of three parts: the pressure on the balloon mirrors law enforcement; the size of the balloon is the drug trade; and the volume mirrors the amount of drug production. If money is spent on decreasing one of these elements, the balloon will stay in equilibrium by expanding in another way, resulting in a solely temporary, if any, reduction of drugs (Windle & Farrell, 2012). For example, if law enforcement is upscaled in one area to dismantle drug operations, more drugs will appear in other areas to make up for the loss. In other words, the supply part of the drug industry seems untouchable.


Addiction and Drug Demand

Much about addiction remains a mystery to this day. Perhaps this is the case because modern science still struggles to understand the interplay of the physical and the psychological, which are exactly what drugs influence. On the one hand, there are drugs including cocaine and heroine that directly affect users' bodily functions and render them so addicted that they cannot think about anything else other than financing their next shot. Marijuana and XTC, however, are two examples of drugs to which human bodies do not really become addicted. Instead, the feeling of being high, rather than the presence of the chemicals in one’s bloodstream, is what induces addiction (Janik et al., 2017).

Figure 3: Drug addiction rates and drug control spending in the USA over time. Though the amount of money spent has vastly increased, the drug addiction rate has not decreased significantly (Guerra-Pujol, 2020).

Breakthroughs in addiction science were made in the 1970s, though their conclusions have not been implicated in society. A known example was an experiment performed in which rats were isolated and given a choice between two water bottles, one of which was lined with heroin or cocaine, while the other was normal water. Eventually, the rats became addicted to the drugged water. The pioneer of this field, American psychologist Dr Bruce Alexander, thought to incorporate a social element into this experiment. He came up with a new paradigm, famously termed “Rat Park”. In this rat paradise, there was enough to eat and drink, and the rats had a variety of toys. Perhaps most importantly, the animals were free to socialise and have sex. In this setting, the rats did not develop an addiction towards the drug-lined water, and none of the rats overdosed. This is in large contrast with the original experiment, in which all the rats would eventually overdose (Alexander et al., 1981).


This experiment does not show a biological understanding of addiction. It does, however, stress the importance of social and psychological aspects in addiction, thereby starting a fresh narrative on this field. When this train of thought is combined with the largely unsuccessful attempts in decreasing drug supply, perhaps tackling drug demand would be more effective. This is exactly how Switzerland, a true example of combatting drug abuse, changed its policy over the last four decades.

Figure 4: An illustration of the rat paradise. In contrast to other experiments, rats were not socially deprived, and had time to play and socialise with each other (Young, 2013).

Swiss Policies on Drug Use

In the 1980s, Switzerland faced a major heroin epidemic. The health of the population rapidly declined, and HIV became much more common (Herzig & Wolf, 2019). This made the government desperate and ready to adopt a radical change in policy concerning drugs. By doing so, overdose deaths decreased by half, and HIV infections dropped even more. Because of its amazing results, the Swiss’ “four-pillar model” is internationally recognised as a promising new way of tackling drugs. These pillars are the focuses of their policies: harm reduction, treatment, prevention, and repression (Knopf, 2019).


Instead of investing in law enforcement, policies aimed at reintegration were developed by focusing on harm reduction. After decriminalising drug use, programmes were set up in which users received clean needles and drugs that had been checked by health workers. Though it sounds odd to legalise drug use, the fact that users had medical supervision rapidly decreased the number of overdoses. In such facilities, drug users were connected with people and had satisfactory living conditions, including food, places to sleep, do laundry, or find addiction treatment (Herzig & Wolf, 2019; Knopf, 2019). In America, there are calls for a similar programme, and many politicians could not be more disgusted (Hill, 2019). An argument that frequently comes up is that such safe facilities would only stimulate more people to take drugs and increase the number of drug users. In Switzerland, however, 75% of active users are in current treatment of addiction therapy, and 95% have been in treatment at some point (Herzig & Wolf, 2019; Knopf, 2019). All of these resulted from efforts in lowering the boundary to help and increasing its availability, rather than desperate attempts in decreasing supply.

Figure 5: An illustration by UNAIDS to promote harm reduction as an approach to fight against drugs (UNAIDS, 2017).

Another positive aspect that is met with much scepticism is the idea that drug legalisation leads to reduced crime rates. The rationale is that if there is no worry about law enforcement, users can purchase from local and trustworthy suppliers rather than illegal traders or organisations. On the other hand, sceptics, including the United States Department of Justice in 1996, suggest that legalisation of drugs would result in more users and therefore more people under drug influence, who are generally more likely to commit crimes ("Legalizing Drugs Would Increase Violent Crime," 1998). However, as evidenced by statistics in Switzerland, legalisation of drugs does not lead to an increased number of users (Herzig & Wolf, 2019; Knopf, 2019). Interestingly, over the past decades, states in the USA have started experimenting with legalising marijuana. Although the supply chain surrounding this drug is less infamous than that of harder narcotics like cocaine or heroin, the data on crime rates after legalisation of marijuana do paint quite a picture. Almost every state that legalises marijuana sees a significant drop in crime rates, though the effects are generally very local (Brinkman & Mok-Lamme, 2019; Dragone et al., 2019; Lu et al., 2021; Morris et al., 2014).


In conclusion, the Swiss radical policies of legalising drugs and connecting users with addiction treatment have led to an incredible increase in public health and a decline in the number of drug users. While this does not mean that other countries too, should legalise all drugs available, it does mean, however, that it is time for a fresh perspective on drugs and addiction. It is time to end the war on drugs.

Bibliographical References

Alexander, B. K., Beyerstein, B. L., Hadaway, P. F., & Coambs, R. B. (1981). Effect of early and later colony housing on oral ingestion of morphine in rats. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 15(4), 571–576. https://doi.org/10.1016/0091-3057(81)90211-2


Brinkman, J., & Mok-Lamme, D. (2019). Not in my backyard? Not so fast. The effect of marijuana legalization on neighborhood crime. Regional Science and Urban Economics, 78, 103460. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.regsciurbeco.2019.103460


Dobkin, C., & Nicosia, N. (2009). The war on drugs: methamphetamine, public health, and crime. American Economic Review, 99(1), 324–349. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.99.1.324


Dragone, D., Prarolo, G., Vanin, P., & Zanella, G. (2019). Crime and the legalization of recreational marijuana. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 159, 488–501. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2018.02.005


Herzig, M., & Wolf, M. (2019). Inside Switzerland’s radical drug policy innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://doi.org/10.48558/MQWP-3277


Hill, B. (2021). Rep. Malliotakis rips de Blasio as drug injection sites open in NYC: ‘Violation of federal law’. https://malliotakis.house.gov/media/in-the-news/rep-malliotakis-rips-de-blasio-drug-injection-sites-open-nyc-violation-federal


Legalizing Drugs Would Increase Violent Crim. (1998). (testimony of J.A. Inciardi & C. A. Saum).


Janik, P., Kosticova, M., Pecenak, J., & Turcek, M. (2017). Categorization of psychoactive substances into “hard drugs” and “soft drugs”: a critical review of terminology used in current scientific literature. In American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse (Vol. 43, Issue 6, pp. 636–646). Taylor and Francis Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1080/00952990.2017.1335736


Knopf, T. (2019). Switzerland couldn't stop drug users. so it started supporting them. North Carolina Health News. https://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2019/01/21/switzerland-couldnt-stop-drug-users-so-it-started-supporting-them/


Lopez, G. (2016). The War on Drugs, Explained. https://www.vox.com/2016/5/8/18089368/war-on-drugs-marijuana-cocaine-heroin-meth


Lopez, G. (2017). How the War on Drugs Has Made Drug Traffickers More Ruthless and Efficient. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/1/30/14346766/drug-war-failure-evolution


Lu, R., Willits, D., Stohr, M. K., Makin, D., Snyder, J., Lovrich, N., Meize, M., Stanton, D., Wu, G., & Hemmens, C. (2021). The cannabis effect on crime: time-series analysis of crime in Colorado and Washington State. Justice Quarterly, 38(4), 565–595. https://doi.org/10.1080/07418825.2019.1666903


Madden, G. J. (2008). Ammunition for fighting a demand-side war on drugs: a review of contingency management in substance abuse treatment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 41(4), 645–651. https://doi.org/10.1901/jaba.2008.41-645


McSweeney, K. (2020). Reliable drug war data: the consolidated counterdrug database and cocaine interdiction in the “transit zone.” International Journal of Drug Policy, 80, 102719. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102719


Morris, R. G., TenEyck, M., Barnes, J. C., & Kovandzic, T. v. (2014). The effect of medical marijuana laws on crime: evidence from state panel data, 1990-2006. PLoS ONE, 9(3), e92816. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0092816


Piaggio, A., & Vidwans, P. (2019). The cost and consequences of the war on drugs. Human Rights Foundation Center for Law and Democracy.


Windle, J., & Farrell, G. (2012). Popping the balloon effect: assessing drug law enforcement in terms of displacement, diffusion, and the containment hypothesis. Substance Use & Misuse, 47(8–9), 868–876. https://doi.org/10.3109/10826084.2012.663274

Visual Sources

Cover image: González, A. L. (2017). The Narco Art that documents the Absurd War on Drugs. [image]. Medium. https://medium.com/@analuisagonzalez/the-narco-art-that-documents-the-absurdity-of-the-war-on-drugs-c6d91281dff7


Figure 1: Perkis, D. F. (2021). The Science of Supply and Demand. [image]. https://research.stlouisfed.org/publications/page1-econ/2021/03/01/the-science-of-supply-and-demand


Figure 2: Piaggio, A., & Vidwans, P. (2019). The cost and consequences of the war on drugs. [image]. Human Rights Foundation Center for Law and Democracy.


Figure 3: Guerra-Pujol, F. E. (2020). Defund the War On Drugs. [image]. https://priorprobability.com/2020/06/08/defund-the-war-on-drugs/


Figure 4: Young, J. (2013). Advances in the History of Psychology. [image]. https://ahp.apps01.yorku.ca/2013/09/rat-park-a-comic-on-the-history-of-the-psychology-of-addiction/


Figure 5: UNAIDS (2017). Explaining harm reduction with hard hats, seatbelts and sunscreen. [image]. https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/presscentre/featurestories/2017/june/20179623_harm-reduction




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