Why the war on drugs has failed

The harms associated with so-called soft drugs are possible to avoid through careful use.

comment1A recent survey by the Observer magazine found that a staggering 84% of Britons view the “War on drugs”, the now decades long campaign by law enforcement worldwide to reduce sale and use of illegal narcotics, as unwinnable and that 27% view Britain’s drug laws as not being liberal enough. These attitudes appear to be shared by the citizens of many other countries throughout the world, as evidenced by the recent decriminalization of cannabis in Colorado and Washington in the US, the legalization of cannabis in Uruguay and a World Health Organization report released in September advising the decriminalisation of possession of drugs for personal use.

The disillusionment that people feel as a result of the failure of current policies is apparent in the many blog posts on the internet calling for the legalisation of all drugs, sometimes due to the writer’s belief in libertarian ideals about individuals having an absolute right to do what they want with their own body, but also because of a belief that doing so will be more effective at mitigating the harms done by drugs than criminalising the sale and possession of drugs is. Leaving aside the libertarian argument for the moment, it’s worth looking at the flaws that existed in the design and application of the drug laws we currently live under, and whether better-designed laws might prove more beneficial to society than the legalization of drugs en masse.


To me, one of the most basic flaws of the thinking behind modern drug laws is the assumption that reducing usage of all drugs is a good idea without ever articulating why. Of course, I mean in no way to delegitimise or dismiss the suffering of those who become addicted to substances like heroin or crystal meth and the physical and mental anguish that these individuals often suffer. I think that ending their pain and preventing more people from ending up in their situation is the main reason that having a functional, effective drugs policy is so important. But there doesn’t seem to be any logical connection between “we should try to discourage people from taking heroin” and “we should try to discourage people from taking cannabis or ecstasy”. People who have taken, or indeed regularly use, so-called “soft drugs” in many cases report having positive or neutral experiences, and it seems the harms associated with these drugs are in many cases possible to avoid or ameliorate through careful use. Furthermore, the stigma against “drugs” often prevents people from rationally comparing the risks of a given drug with any other recreational activity – ecstasy use is, statistically, less likely to result in death than horse riding.

It’s actually quite difficult to formulate a definition of the word “drug” that includes things that everyone thinks of as drugs but that doesn’t include, say, sugar. The justification sometimes given for “soft drugs” being illegal is that they act as “gateway drugs” that inexorably lead their users to use harder drugs, so the use of these substances should be discouraged despite their relative lack of intrinsic harms. The problem here is that it’s tough to know firstly, whether this actually occurs, and secondly the mechanism by which it happens if it does. It’s entirely possible that the reason cannabis users sometimes go on to do harder drugs is that the process of getting cannabis puts them in contact with people who sell harder drugs, or that those who are willing to break the law to use cannabis are likely to have a personality biased towards risk taking and hence were likely to use harder drugs later anyway, making the use of “soft drugs” a symptom rather than a cause. This lack of clarity means that the “gateway drug” theory is, at least for now, not a good enough reason to assume that all drug use is necessarily bad.

Ineffective resources

The problem that targeting “soft drugs” along with more dangerous ones causes is that, firstly, resources like police time and jail space are wasted on trying to reduce usage of less dangerous drugs when it’s unclear why one would want to do this in the first place, and, secondly, anti-drug efforts often end up trying to do several things at once, thereby limiting their effectiveness. So, for example, a certain law or program might work very well at combating the use of speed (amphetamine), but not work to reduce LSD or cannabis use, since each of these drugs is used by different types of people for different reasons and there exist different cultures around the use of each drug. This may go some way towards explaining why modern drug laws have, for the most part, failed to reduce drug use – it’s tough to know whether programs failed because of which drugs they were targeted at or because they were just bad programs, meaning that entirely workable drug prevention programs may be dumped as a result.

The fact that the information given in drug prevention workshops and classes is often misleading and biased, aimed at making drugs look as bad as possible rather than giving accurate information, exacerbates the issues raised above. A prominent example of this is the claim that a single ecstasy pill can kill a person, which appears in several drug education programs and at least one SPHE textbook currently in use in Irish secondary schools (Minding Me 3). This claim refers to the tragic cases of Anna Woods and Leah Betts, two teenage girls who died after taking ecstasy – and then drinking huge amounts of water, causing water poisoning a.k.a dilutional hyponatremia due to inaccurate harm reduction information regarding ecstasy use. (To clarify, the advice to drink lots of water was given on the assumption that people would only be using ecstasy at raves, while these girls used the drug at house parties). People who are simply told that ecstasy is potentially lethal, without being given the full facts of these cases, then go on to discover that plenty of perfectly successful people in life have used or continue to use ecstasy, may assume that the things they were told about the harms of other drugs were equally exaggerated, which hamstrings drug prevention efforts because it’s hard for people to tell which parts are accurate or inaccurate unless they do extensive research on their own, so in many cases people just ignore the things that drug prevention campaigns say because they can’t tell which parts are true and which aren’t.

Targeting users

Another issue that may have impeded the effectiveness of anti-drug campaigns is what actually happens to people who get drugs convictions. I would argue that drug laws should always target suppliers and traffickers rather than end users. If drug use has a victim in society it is surely those who use the drugs and punishing those who may be addicted or devoid of other ways of enjoying life doesn’t seem like a fair thing to do. But even if you do think that drug users deserve to be punished, an important lesson from the past 40 years of failed policies is that giving jail sentences (rather than, say, fines) to those who possess but do not sell drugs is simply massively counterproductive in terms of reducing drug use. The problem is that when people go to jail, they meet other drug users and are more likely in the future to use more drugs, both because they are more likely to know where to get drugs and because of problems reintegrating into society after serving a jail sentence.  Four out of five drug related arrests in the US in 2005 were for possession rather than sale of drugs. This is important factor to consider when looking at how to reform drug laws.

A final issue is the issue of racial bias in sentencing. In the US, despite white people using drugs at a slightly higher rate than black people, black people are far more likely to be arrested and convicted for drugs related offenses. It is likely that drug policies affect racial minorities in similar ways in other countries, although less empirical data exists outside of the US. The perception of these policies as being racist (because, well, they are) alienates communities from local police forces and drug prevention efforts, when engagement of these communities with such efforts is key to the long term success of any drug prevention campaign, since community stigma against selling is more effective and easier to maintain than the presence of police officers.

It’s likely that the drugs I’ve talked about and the conclusions that I’ve come to in this article are biased by my own experiences, and it’s entirely possible that the conclusions I’ve drawn aren’t the best possible way to go about reforming drug laws because of this. The most important thing is for society to acknowledge that current drug laws are hugely counterproductive (a recent UK government report admitted that there was no obvious link between the government being “tough on drugs” and a reduction in drug usage) and harmful to society. It is crucial going forward that drug laws be evidence-based and targeted towards the most dangerous drugs, rather than based around a simplistic, knee-jerk belief that “drugs are bad” and that the desire for more liberal drug laws be channelled into policies that genuinely improve people’s lives.

Illustration: Natalie Duda