Is the Global War on Drugs a Failure?

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, founder and director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelman and César Gaviria president of Colombia from 1990 to 1994 and a commissioner on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, discussed the Global Commission on Drug Policy report and why they say the global war on drugs has failed.

Since President Nixon declared the "war on drugs," there has been very little to show for it, according to former President of Colombia, César Gaviria. In the last 40 years the results have been disappointing and the increase in spending has shown no improvement, he said.

The report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, released earlier this month, reflects his opinion.

So, what needs to change?

Gaviria said the U.S., and other countries who criminalize drug use, need to take a different approach to dealing with drugs.

What the world needs at this moment, and the U.S., is to look at the problem of consumption of drugs as a sickness, as a problem of health, but not as a criminal's not using enough money on information and prevention and the problem of using marijuana is totally out of's time that the U.S. at least look at Europe that has been handling this in a much more intelligent way. They use the word harm, less harm for society, and I really think that is a much better approach.

Ethan Nadelman of the Drug Policy Alliance agreed that the European tactic is a very different one.

If they're going to have a drug czar it's more likely to be somebody with a health background than what we have in the U.S. which is somebody who's a former police chief, a military general or a professional moralist.

The wrong bottom line

Those in favor of the way we fight the "war on drugs" through criminalization, measure drug use and its decline in a way that doesn't reflect the truth about drug use, according to Nadelman. He said those that claim success are looking at the wrong set numbers.

The drug war-ers will say, well look, the 1980's were a great success because the number of Americans who admitted to using illegal drugs dropped from 40 million to 20 million. Now I'll say, look back at those numbers. First of all, most of the people using drugs in 1980 were you know, people smoking marijuana or yuppies doing cocaine, most of whom do not have a problem. Keep this in mind, in 1980 nobody's heard of crack cocaine but by 1990 it was a national epidemic. In 1980 nobody had heard of drug related HIV or AIDS, but by 1990, a quarter million Americans were dead or dying because of drug related AIDS...

Gaviria added that this number counting takes the fight in the wrong direction. In fact, it proves the opposite.

The authorities in the US can not keep measuring success about how many people they put in jail, about how much amounts of drug they seize because that is totally un-useful for us. It's only proof that things are getting worse and not better.

The market

Ethan Nadelman said the importance of decriminalization is also a matter of economics.

There's no question that if you take a commodity which is used by tens of millions of people, maybe hundreds of millions of people around the world, that provides black market revenue that amounts to many, many tens of billions of dollars a year and if you instead choose to tax, control and regulate than that will remove a major source of capital and power for criminal organizations.

He said the tactic of legalization and regulation needs to be on the table for an informed discussion to take place around how to deal with drug use. This is the path we took with prohibition, he added, and it worked.