‘J,’ a 28 year old single mother of six, agreed to carry drugs into a Costa Rican prison in exchange for money to feed her family.

“If I didn’t provide for my children, they would have died of hunger. It’s the easy money that always conquers you, because you never think about the consequences in the moment. You only think of what you’re going to bring home and give to them,” she said.

She changed her mind at the last moment and gave the drugs to prison guards instead. She was arrested, tried, and sentenced to more than five years in prison.

"It has not worked."

Sadly, J’s experience is far from an isolated incident. For the past several decades, many governments have waged an increasingly punitive—and futile—war on drugs. Punitive approaches to the drug trade are often based on ideology, not evidence; ultimately, they have not significantly reduced the drug trade. In the words of the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; “Drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrongheaded governmental policies have destroyed many more. I think it’s obvious that after 40 years of war on drugs, it has not worked.”

The consequences are deep and far-ranging: more violence, more human rights abuses, and an erosion of public health. The people most affected are the ones who are already the most marginalized: rural inhabitants, indigenous peoples, racial minorities, young people and women.

Some women living in poverty become involved in the drug trade because gender discrimination limits their opportunities for education and jobs.

Many are employed on the lowest rungs of the drug trade, transporting or selling small quantities; but they often carry the greatest risk, and suffer the worst consequences, including severe criminal penalties, as those with greater involvement.