It's Time to Legalize Drugs
By Ethan Nadelmann, Foreign Policy
Posted on December 20, 2007, Printed on December 20,
Prohibition has failed -- again. Instead of treating
the demand for illegal drugs as a market, and addicts
as patients, policymakers the world over have boosted
the profits of drug lords and fostered narcostates
that would frighten Al Capone. Finally, a smarter drug
control regime that values reality over rhetoric is
rising to replace the "war" on drugs.
"The Global War on Drugs can Be Won"
No, it can't. A "drug-free world," which the United
Nations describes as a realistic goal, is no more
attainable than an "alcohol-free world" -- and no one
has talked about that with a straight face since the
repeal of Prohibition in the United States in 1933.
Yet futile rhetoric about winning a "war on drugs"
persists, despite mountains of evidence documenting
its moral and ideological bankruptcy. When the U.N.
General Assembly Special Session on drugs convened in
1998, it committed to "eliminating or significantly
reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the
cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008"
and to "achieving significant and measurable results
in the field of demand reduction." But today, global
production and consumption of those drugs are roughly
the same as they were a decade ago; meanwhile, many
producers have become more efficient, and cocaine and
heroin have become purer and cheaper.
It's always dangerous when rhetoric drives policy --
and especially so when "war on drugs" rhetoric leads
the public to accept collateral casualties that would
never be permissible in civilian law enforcement, much
less public health. Politicians still talk of
eliminating drugs from the Earth as though their use
is a plague on humanity. But drug control is not like
disease control, for the simple reason that there's no
popular demand for smallpox or polio. Cannabis and
opium have been grown throughout much of the world for
millennia. The same is true for coca in Latin America.
Methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs can be
produced anywhere. Demand for particular illicit drugs
waxes and wanes, depending not just on availability
but also fads, fashion, culture, and competition from
alternative means of stimulation and distraction. The
relative harshness of drug laws and the intensity of
enforcement matter surprisingly little, except in
totalitarian states. After all, rates of illegal drug
use in the United States are the same as, or higher
than, Europe, despite America's much more punitive
"We Can Reduce the Demand for Drugs"
Good luck. Reducing the demand for illegal drugs seems
to make sense. But the desire to alter one's state of
consciousness, and to use psychoactive drugs to do so,
is nearly universal -- and mostly not a problem.
There's virtually never been a drug-free society, and
more drugs are discovered and devised every year.
Demand-reduction efforts that rely on honest education
and positive alternatives to drug use are helpful, but
not when they devolve into unrealistic, "zero
As with sex, abstinence from drugs is the best way to
avoid trouble, but one always needs a fallback
strategy for those who can't or won't refrain. "Zero
tolerance" policies deter some people, but they also
dramatically increase the harms and costs for those
who don't resist. Drugs become more potent, drug use
becomes more hazardous, and people who use drugs are
marginalized in ways that serve no one.
The better approach is not demand reduction but "harm
reduction." Reducing drug use is fine, but it's not
nearly as important as reducing the death, disease,
crime, and suffering associated with both drug misuse
and failed prohibitionist policies. With respect to
legal drugs, such as alcohol and cigarettes, harm
reduction means promoting responsible drinking and
designated drivers, or persuading people to switch to
nicotine patches, chewing gums, and smokeless tobacco.
With respect to illegal drugs, it means reducing the
transmission of infectious disease through
syringe-exchange programs, reducing overdose
fatalities by making antidotes readily available, and
allowing people addicted to heroin and other illegal
opiates to obtain methadone from doctors and even
pharmaceutical heroin from clinics.
Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and
Switzerland have already embraced this last option.
There's no longer any question that these strategies
decrease drug-related harms without increasing drug
use. What blocks expansion of such programs is not
cost; they typically save taxpayers' money that would
otherwise go to criminal justice and healthcare. No,
the roadblocks are abstinence-only ideologues and a
cruel indifference to the lives and well-being of
people who use drugs.
"Reducing the Supply of Drugs Is the Answer"
Not if history is any guide. Reducing supply makes as
much sense as reducing demand; after all, if no one
were planting cannabis, coca, and opium, there
wouldn't be any heroin, cocaine, or marijuana to sell
or consume. But the carrot and stick of crop
eradication and substitution have been tried and
failed, with rare exceptions, for half a century.
These methods may succeed in targeted locales, but
they usually simply shift production from one region
to another: Opium production moves from Pakistan to
Afghanistan; coca from Peru to Colombia; and cannabis
from Mexico to the United States, while overall global
production remains relatively constant or even
The carrot, in the form of economic development and
assistance in switching to legal crops, is typically
both late and inadequate. The stick, often in the form
of forced eradication, including aerial spraying,
wipes out illegal and legal crops alike and can be
hazardous to both people and local environments. The
best thing to be said for emphasizing supply reduction
is that it provides a rationale for wealthier nations
to spend a little money on economic development in
poorer countries. But, for the most part, crop
eradication and substitution wreak havoc among
impoverished farmers without diminishing overall
The global markets in cannabis, coca, and opium
products operate essentially the same way that other
global commodity markets do: If one source is
compromised due to bad weather, rising production
costs, or political difficulties, another emerges. If
international drug control circles wanted to think
strategically, the key question would no longer be how
to reduce global supply, but rather: Where does
illicit production cause the fewest problems (and the
greatest benefits)? Think of it as a global vice
control challenge. No one expects to eradicate vice,
but it must be effectively zoned and regulated -- even
if it's illegal.
"U.S. Drug Policy Is the World's Drug Policy"
Sad, but true. Looking to the United States as a role
model for drug control is like looking to
apartheid-era South Africa for how to deal with race.
The United States ranks first in the world in per
capita incarceration -- with less than 5 percent of
the world's population, but almost 25 percent of the
world's prisoners. The number of people locked up for
U.S. drug-law violations has increased from roughly
50,000 in 1980 to almost 500,000 today; that's more
than the number of people Western Europe locks up for
everything. Even more deadly is U.S. resistance to
syringe-exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS both at
home and abroad. Who knows how many people might not
have contracted HIV if the United States had
implemented at home, and supported abroad, the sorts
of syringe-exchange and other harm-reduction programs
that have kept HIV/AIDS rates so low in Australia,
Britain, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Perhaps
And yet, despite this dismal record, the United States
has succeeded in constructing an international drug
prohibition regime modeled after its own highly
punitive and moralistic approach. It has dominated the
drug control agencies of the United Nations and other
international organizations, and its federal drug
enforcement agency was the first national police
organization to go global. Rarely has one nation so
successfully promoted its own failed policies to the
rest of the world.
But now, for the first time, U.S. hegemony in drug
control is being challenged. The European Union is
demanding rigorous assessment of drug control
strategies. Exhausted by decades of service to the
U.S.-led war on drugs, Latin Americans are far less
inclined to collaborate closely with U.S. drug
enforcement efforts. Finally waking up to the deadly
threat of hiv/aids, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and
even Malaysia and Iran are increasingly accepting of
syringe-exchange and other harm-reduction programs. In
2005, the ayatollah in charge of Iran's Ministry of
Justice issued a fatwa declaring methadone maintenance
and syringe-exchange programs compatible with sharia
(Islamic) law. One only wishes his American
counterpart were comparably enlightened.
"Afghan Opium Production Must Be Curbed"
Be careful what you wish for. It's easy to believe
that eliminating record-high opium production in
Afghanistan -- which today accounts for roughly 90
percent of global supply, up from 50 percent 10 years
ago -- would solve everything from heroin abuse in
Europe and Asia to the resurgence of the Taliban.
But assume for a moment that the United States, NATO,
and Hamid Karzai's government were somehow able to cut
opium production in Afghanistan. Who would benefit?
Only the Taliban, warlords, and other black-market
entrepreneurs whose stockpiles of opium would
skyrocket in value. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan
peasants would flock to cities, ill-prepared to find
work. And many Afghans would return to their farms the
following year to plant another illegal harvest,
utilizing guerrilla farming methods to escape
intensified eradication efforts. Except now, they'd
soon be competing with poor farmers elsewhere in
Central Asia, Latin America, or even Africa. This is,
after all, a global commodities market. And outside
Afghanistan? Higher heroin prices typically translate
into higher crime rates by addicts. They also invite
cheaper but more dangerous means of consumption, such
as switching from smoking to injecting heroin, which
results in higher HIV and hepatitis c rates. All
things considered, wiping out opium in Afghanistan
would yield far fewer benefits than is commonly
So what's the solution? Some recommend buying up all
the opium in Afghanistan, which would cost a lot less
than is now being spent trying to eradicate it. But,
given that farmers somewhere will produce opium so
long as the demand for heroin persists, maybe the
world is better off, all things considered, with 90
percent of it coming from just one country. And if
that heresy becomes the new gospel, it opens up all
sorts of possibilities for pursuing a new policy in
Afghanistan that reconciles the interests of the
United States, NATO, and millions of Afghan citizens.
"Legalization Is the Best Approach"
It might be. Global drug prohibition is clearly a
costly disaster. The United Nations has estimated the
value of the global market in illicit drugs at $400
billion, or 6 percent of global trade. The
extraordinary profits available to those willing to
assume the risks enrich criminals, terrorists, violent
political insurgents, and corrupt politicians and
governments. Many cities, states, and even countries
in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia are
reminiscent of Chicago under Al Capone -- times 50. By
bringing the market for drugs out into the open,
legalization would radically change all that for the
More importantly, legalization would strip addiction
down to what it really is: a health issue. Most people
who use drugs are like the responsible alcohol
consumer, causing no harm to themselves or anyone
else. They would no longer be the state's business.
But legalization would also benefit those who struggle
with drugs by reducing the risks of overdose and
disease associated with unregulated products,
eliminating the need to obtain drugs from dangerous
criminal markets, and allowing addiction problems to
be treated as medical rather than criminal problems.
No one knows how much governments spend collectively
on failing drug war policies, but it's probably at
least $100 billion a year, with federal, state, and
local governments in the United States accounting for
almost half the total. Add to that the tens of
billions of dollars to be gained annually in tax
revenues from the sale of legalized drugs. Now imagine
if just a third of that total were committed to
reducing drug-related disease and addiction. Virtually
everyone, except those who profit or gain politically
from the current system, would benefit.
Some say legalization is immoral. That's nonsense,
unless one believes there is some principled basis for
discriminating against people based solely on what
they put into their bodies, absent harm to others.
Others say legalization would open the floodgates to
huge increases in drug abuse. They forget that we
already live in a world in which psychoactive drugs of
all sorts are readily available -- and in which people
too poor to buy drugs resort to sniffing gasoline,
glue, and other industrial products, which can be more
harmful than any drug. No, the greatest downside to
legalization may well be the fact that the legal
markets would fall into the hands of the powerful
alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical companies. Still,
legalization is a far more pragmatic option than
living with the corruption, violence, and organized
crime of the current system.
"Legalization Will Never Happen"
Never say never. Wholesale legalization may be a long
way off -- but partial legalization is not. If any
drug stands a chance of being legalized, it's
cannabis. Hundreds of millions of people have used it,
the vast majority without suffering any harm or going
on to use "harder" drugs. In Switzerland, for example,
cannabis legalization was twice approved by one
chamber of its parliament, but narrowly rejected by
Elsewhere in Europe, support for the criminalization
of cannabis is waning. In the United States, where
roughly 40 percent of the country's 1.8 million annual
drug arrests are for cannabis possession, typically of
tiny amounts, 40 percent of Americans say that the
drug should be taxed, controlled, and regulated like
alcohol. Encouraged by Bolivian President Evo Morales,
support is also growing in Latin America and Europe
for removing coca from international antidrug
conventions, given the absence of any credible health
reason for keeping it there. Traditional growers would
benefit economically, and there's some possibility
that such products might compete favorably with more
problematic substances, including alcohol.
The global war on drugs persists in part because so
many people fail to distinguish between the harms of
drug abuse and the harms of prohibition. Legalization
forces that distinction to the forefront. The opium
problem in Afghanistan is primarily a prohibition
problem, not a drug problem. The same is true of the
narcoviolence and corruption that has afflicted Latin
America and the Caribbean for almost three decades --
and that now threatens Africa. Governments can arrest
and kill drug lord after drug lord, but the ultimate
solution is a structural one, not a prosecutorial one.
Few people doubt any longer that the war on drugs is
lost, but courage and vision are needed to transcend
the ignorance, fear, and vested interests that sustain
Want To Know More?
Drugpolicy.org, the Web site of the Drug Policy
Alliance, offers statistics, arguments, and
information about drug policies worldwide. Ethan
Nadelmann and Peter Andreas examine the politics of
global crime control in Policing the Globe:
Criminalization and Crime Control in International
Relations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Reproduced with permission from Foreign Policy #162
(September/October 2007) www.foreignpolicy.com. ©
2007, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Ethan Nadelmann is founder and executive director of
the Drug Policy Alliance.
© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights