Epic failure: the uncomfortable truth about the United States' role in the failure of the global war on drugs and how it is going to fix it.

Author:Wild, Joshua D.

    The global war on drugs has been deemed a failure, an apt categorization considering the billions in exorbitant expenditures applied to its supply-side campaign with little statistics to effectuate its cause. (1) In fact, evidence persistently suggests that the ardent prohibitionist style of the United States may be the leading cause for the current global drug epidemic. (2) The disheartening current state of the international drug problem has lead to the global erosion of support for the U.S.-style war on drugs; furthermore, the emergence of new empirical data has generated a series of advocates for reform who seek fiscally responsible policies grounded in science, health, security, and human rights. (3) Part and parcel of this argument is the encouragement of governments to experiment with the legal regulation of marijuana because of its vast global consumption and low level of associated criminality. (4) Evidence suggesting there are more pragmatic and less punitive approaches to the drug issue, coalescing with various global commissions advocating the assimilation of this data into policies, represents a shift in the global drug consensus. (5) This shift in global consensus places the United States, in the necessary sociopolitical context that may be needed to actually manage the drug epidemic. (6)

    This Note argues that the United States has severely aggravated the global drug control problem by forcefully imposing a prohibitionist ideology onto other countries around the world. (7) To remedy this error, the United States should take accountability and stand at the forefront of drug policy reformation by implementing demand side policies within its own nation, something that is within its own capacity. (8) Part II of this Note will set forth all of the pertinent facts that are necessary for understanding the current global drug epidemic, how the epidemic arrived at this state, and what the United States can do to manage it. (9) In Part III, this Note traces the history of international drug control and attempts to correlate the demise of control over the issue with U.S.-led supply-side policies. (10) Part IV provides an analysis of how the United States exacerbated the problem and suggests an avenue the United States can take to place the issue in a manageable position. (11) Part V concludes that the United States should take accountability for its mistakes and reform its policies from a regime of prohibition to one of regulation. (12)

  2. FACTS

    The ineffectiveness of the war against drugs, both domestically and internationally, is not a relatively new or veiled problem (13) Despite the continual emergence of empirical evidence, little has been done to assimilate this information into drug control policies since the war was first waged by international policymakers and President Richard Nixon over forty years ago. (14) Recently, case studies and evidence have accumulated to a level that can no longer be ignored, and the debate concerning more efficient alternatives and revisions to current drug control policies has intensified. (15) International commissions such as the Global Commission on Drug Control Policy are chastising global drug control regimes for their lack of leadership on drug policy and are advocating for multilateral debate on this issue. (16) Essential to the progression of this issue is the United States, who within the past forty years has spent over $2.5 trillion dollars fighting the war, with little empirical data to support meaningful results. (17) In fact, research has consistently indicated that the United States supply-side policies are instead a leading cause of the current international epidemic. (18)

    1. The First Step to Solving a Problem is Recognizing That There is One--Current State of International Drug Control

      With the implementation of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs ("UNSCND") nearly fifty years ago, it was clear that the ultimate objective was to improve the "health and welfare of mankind." (19) Unfortunately, this objective has been lost amidst current policies driven by ideological perspective and political convenience, with a focus on quantifiable figures such as drug arrests and harsh punishments, rather than qualitative figures that represent economic and social development. (20) Since the initiation of the global drug prohibition system, numerous forms of empirical and scientific evidence have surfaced that reveal the nature and patterns of drug production, distribution, consumption, and dependence. (21) Most significantly, some studies have even correlated the progression of these patterns with the effectiveness of current policies. (22) The 2011 World Drug Report estimated that in 2009, between 149 and 272 million people globally, or 3.3% to 6.1% of the world's middle aged population, used illicit substances at least once in that year. (23) Globally, the average prevalence of HIV and Hepatitis C among injecting drug users is 17.9% and 50%, respectively. (24) These statistics reflect the health consequences of the drug use epidemic and illustrate the importance of solving this ominous predicament. (25)

      Ironically, despite increasing evidence that the current drug control policies are not working, and case studies suggesting that less repressive, alternative drug control policies are working, most policymaking bodies have tended to avoid this reality and the possibility of exploring alternatives. (26) Governments continue to expend resources and billions of U.S. dollars on incarceration and futile supply reduction strategies which in turn displace the possibility of spending these resources on demand reduction. (27) Advocates of reform endorse the sensible policy option that governments experiment with different models of legal regulation of drugs in an attempt to undermine the criminal market and enhance national security. (28) For this movement to effectively control the epidemic at hand, there must be a broad consensus around the world that the current drug control policies are morally noxious. (29) Unfortunately, the stigma and fear associated with more toxic drugs, such as heroin, has precluded this consensus and perpetuated the current ineffective policies. (30)

    2. Exacerbating the Problem--The U.S. Role in the Global War on Drugs

      When President Nixon waged the U.S. Government's "War on Drugs" nearly forty years ago, policymakers' focus was on supply-side measures and harsh law enforcement as the means to stop the seemingly endless flow of drugs across U.S. borders. (31) The problem was, and remains today, that the United States is the world's largest consumer of illicit drugs, and combining that with drug markets as diverse and well established as they are, the possibility of stopping the supply of these drugs is simply unrealistic and unrealizable. (32) Instead, these ineffective drug policies have resulted in nothing short of an abject disaster. (33) With approximately 20 million illicit drug users in the United States, the estimated annual cost of illicit drug use to society is above $193 billion. (34) With the overall availability of illicit drugs in the U.S. increasing at alarming rates, and empirical data to correlate current drug policies to this epidemic, advocates of reform are pointing to the urgent need for a more rational drug control policy discussion. (35)

      Policymakers often underrate the U.S.-demand element of the equation, and how it relates to the problem at hand, particularly when you consider that marijuana accounts for the vast majority of America's illicit drug consumption. (36) A 2010 study conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that in the United States, 22.6 million people had used illicit drugs in the past month, 17.4 million of which used marijuana. (37) Further, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that at least 18.5 % of the nation's young adults, aged 18 to 25, used marijuana. (38) Put bluntly, the monumental scope of the international marijuana market is largely affected by the exorbitant U.S. demand for the drug and the illegality of the market. (39)

      The high demand for marijuana in the United States has eroded authority in countries that produce marijuana, and international officials are increasingly calling on the United States to do more to reduce its demand. (40) At a time when it seems that the drug epidemic in the United States may be spiraling out of control, there is a growing movement among U.S. states to rethink and restructure marijuana laws. (41) Marijuana is a criminally sanctioned drug under U.S. federal law, but as of 2010, over half of the states have enacted or proposed legislation that either allows legal medical marijuana or decriminalize possession of marijuana. (42) California was the first state in the United States to allow marijuana for medical use. (43) The state tax board of California believes that the legalization and regulation of marijuana could raise $1.3 billion or more per year, while saving millions of dollars in prison and law enforcement costs. (44) This economic approach to state regulation and taxing of marijuana has a twofold prospective: (1) eradicating the demand for a criminal market, and (2) generating a substantial amount of revenue at a time when it is badly needed. (45) These benefits, combined with the minimal health risks of marijuana in comparison to alcohol and tobacco, are leading more states to tolerant approaches to drug policy. (46)


    The notion that international drug control is primarily a fight against crime and criminals has been the foundation of policy decisions since the development of national and global drug control regimes. (47) The concept of the drug control system was initially developed based on laudable principles such as reducing harm to individuals and fostering economic and social development. (48) Over time, however, the drug control system degenerated into...

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