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Nobel economists call for new drug control strategies

Prize winners criticize war on drugs; call for global approach based on cost-effective public health programs

The war on drugs, with its militarized and enforcement-led focus, has ballooned the United States prison population, immersed swaths of Latin America in drug-fueled violence and propagated human rights abuses globally while doing little to curb drug trafficking and drug use, according to a report released Monday and endorsed by five Nobel Prize-winning economists.

Spending precious economic resources on a “one-size-fits-all” approach to drug interdiction, sanctioned internationally by the United Nations, can no longer be justified and has come at the expense of proven public health policies, according to the report by the London School of Economics. Instead, the reports says, governments should redirect resources toward harm reduction programs and expanded access to medicines.

“There is an increasing recognition among world leaders that the war on drugs strategy has been a disaster,” John Collins, lead author of the report and coordinator of LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project, told Al Jazeera. “It has created enormous collateral damage and achieved none of its stated objectives.”

The report goes beyond mere dismissal of current drug war policy. It recognizes that a growing list of countries are contemplating drug war alternatives, and tries to offer a roadmap for achieving this – one derived by meticulous economic analyses. Countries should redirect resources to scale up funding and access to drug-related health treatment – methods that have proven to reduce drug harms while saving money in countries like Portugal, for example.

“According to several conservative estimates,” the report notes, “every dollar invested in opioid dependence treatment programs may yield a return of between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs and theft alone.”

Throwing money at drug enforcement and eradication has no proven value, the report argues, and is often destructive in terms of public health, human security and socioeconomic development.

Latin America is the primary victim of this approach, especially Mexico and Colombia, whose massive internally displaced populations (IDPs) are among the world’s largest and an indirect cost of drug prohibition policies. The study points to Mexico, where the homicide rate increased threefold between 2006 and 2010, when the government of Felipe Calderon cracked down on drug trafficking syndicates.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who has previously called on international leaders to consider alternatives to the drug war, has said that he will present the LSE report to member states of the U.N. General Assembly. The global body will convene a special session on drugs in 2016 to review the international drug control system, and it will likely object with several points of Monday’s report. Beyond calling for expanded drug treatment programs, the report urges the U.N. to not interfere with states pursuing domestic marijuana regulation.

Instead, the report argues in favor of closely monitored experiments with drug regulation, like what is happening in Uruguay, Colorado and Washington state with recreational marijuana.

“These jurisdictions will help show what policies work and what policies don’t,” said Collins, “and will provide a large benefit to the rest of the world in terms of lessons learned.”

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