The war on drugs creates massive costs, resulting from the enforcement-led approach that puts organised crime in control of the trade. It is time to count these costs and explore the alternatives, using the best evidence available, to deliver a safer, healthier and more just world.

The global “war on drugs” has been fought for 50 years, without preventing the long-term trend of increasing drug supply and use. Beyond this failure, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has also identified the many serious ‘unintended negative consequences’ of the drug war. These costs result not from drug use itself, but from choosing a punitive enforcement-led approach that, by its nature, places control of the trade in the hands of organised crime, and criminalises many users. In the process this:

  1. Undermines international development and security, and fuels conflict 
  2. Threatens public health, spreads disease and causes death
  3. Undermines human rights
  4. Promotes stigma and discrimination 
  5. Creates crime and enriches criminals
  6. Causes deforestation and pollution
  7. Wastes billions on ineffective law enforcement

The “war on drugs” is a policy choice. There are other options that, at the very least, should be debated and explored using the best possible evidence and analysis.

We all share the same goals – a safer, healthier and more just world.  Therefore, we the undersigned, call upon world leaders and UN agencies to quantify the unintended negative consequences of the current approach to drugs, and assess the potential costs and benefits of alternative approaches.

Martin Powell, Co-ordinator of the Count the Costs campaign said: “In 1961 UN member states gathered to sign the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the legal cornerstone of the enforcement-led approach that has become known as the global war on drugs. Fifty years later, with literally trillions of dollars spent, illegal drugs are one of the largest commodity trades on earth. Even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime that oversees the global drug control system, concedes that drug enforcement efforts have fuelled the creation of a vast criminal market with disastrous negative unintended consequences".

Yet no government or UN body has ever quantified these negative costs, or meaningfully explored alternatives to the war on drugs. After half a century this is long overdue. Only by looking at the evidence of what has worked and what has not can we hope to move towards a global drug control system that is, as the UNODC has suggested ‘fit for purpose’.” 

The Count the Costs call mirrors numerous comments made by world leaders, concerning the need to evaluate the costs and benefits of various policy regimes: “There are some fundamental structural contradictions in this war on drugs . . . We in Colombia have been successful, but our success is hurting the whole of Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa, and eventually it will backfire on us again. So are we pursuing the correct long-term policy? I don't object to discussing any alternatives but if we are going to discuss alternatives, let's discuss every alternative… what is the cost, what is the benefit of each alternative?”  (President Santos of Colombia, Washington Post, Dec 2010)