Although touted as a way to protect youths, the global war on drugs has done far more harm than good to young people, needlessly incarcerating them and making addictive substances even more dangerous, according to a report released Friday.
Count the Costs, a global coalition of drug-reform advocates, said the 50-year punitive- and enforcement-based approach to drugs has placed control of the trade in the hands of organized crime and criminalized many users.
The report identified seven overall costs from this approach, including the undermining of human rights, the promotion of stigma and discrimination and the waste of billions of dollars on drug law enforcement.
As part of these trends, the report said, the war on drugs has harmed youths by spurring the rise of violent criminal gangs, incarcerating young people’s parents and leaving millions of people with criminal records that can limit opportunities for the rest of their lives.
“This war, while declared in the name of protecting young people from the ‘drug threat,’ has ironically exposed them to far greater harm. The war on drugs is, in reality, a war on people,” the report said.
Count the Costs’ analysis comes as many U.S. states have started to rethink the effectiveness of drug prohibition, especially when it comes to cannabis.
In the last two years, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Two dozen other states have in recent years approved medical marijuana use to treat a host of ailments, from cancer-related symptoms to glaucoma.
Chief among the concerns raised in the report is how laws against drug use and possession help increase the potency of substances.
Traffickers evading the law want to move the smallest amount of drugs possible in return for the biggest profit. That results in higher potency for addictive and dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin, which are mixed with other substances before sale.
“Criminalization doesn’t stop young people taking drugs, but it does dramatically increase the risks for those who do,” Count the Costs said in a statement.
A similar phenomenon occurred during the era of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, the report said. Alcohol smugglers tried to move as much hard alcohol as possible instead of beer and wine.
Banning alcohol similarly helped give rise to nationwide organized crime syndicates, which enforced their will with deadly violence. The war on drugs has done the same thing, resulting in young people’s going through criminals to purchase drugs, the report said.
Reform advocates have said that regulated markets for illegal drugs make them safer to take and purchase for people who are going try to get their hands on them no matter what the law says.
The report comes ahead of a United Nations meeting next year in which member states will rethink global drug strategies.