With all the recent media attention directed at Mexican drug lord El Chapo following his movie-scene arrest last weekend, there’s surely no better time to think about whether the never-ending-story that is the War on Drugs, will ever have a legitimate winner. 

When President Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971, it was in response to a growing atmosphere of youthful rebellion, social upheaval and political dissent, which he perceived as a threat to American culture and values. As a result of this hardline rhetoric, modern global drug policies have been by dominated by strict, prohibitive laws which, instead of reducing drug use, actually serve to disadvantage the world's economically vulnerable.  

According to the US Treasury, Joaquin Guzman (a.k.a. El Chapo) is the “world’s most powerful drug trafficker.” Responsible for the death of at least 70,000 people and the disappearance of 20,000 more, his arrest is obviously a monumental step in the right direction. But will it really make a significant impact?

Image: Day Donaldson

The fact that he has been arrested and held in maximum security prisons twice before and has escaped on both occasions, should make us doubtful. The world remains unsure as to whether El Chapo will be held accountable, whether he will escape again, or simply whether the next head of the hydra will rise to take his place.

To really alleviate the horrors inflicted by the global drug trade, the global community needs to drastically rethink how it is policed.  Here are 4 things that policy makers need to consider:

1. Firstly, according to Health Poverty Action’s report (Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs is harming the world’s poorest), the global cost of the war on drugs is an estimated £70 billion per year. Considering that the war on drugs’ leads to drug-related violence, but does very little to significantly reduce drug abuse, the war on drugs is absorbing global finance that could be used to better effect elsewhere. 

2. The war on drugs also diverts resources from healthcare and other essential public services. Thanks to the war on drugs many governments in poor countries, a prime example being Colombia, are locked in a state of constant civil war with paramilitary drug cartels. Lacking the financial resources of their adversaries, whose massive profits are predominantly fed by western drug appetites, economically strained governments habitually divert resources from essential public and health to financing war. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

3. Five billion (83%) of the global population live in countries where access to opioid pain medication such as morphine, is either severely limited or entirely restricted. In most of these countries, opioid drugs which are needed to provide essential pain relief to people with serious ailments are stringently regulated out of fear that they might eventually be sold on the illegal drugs market. Removing people’s access to medication is one and the same as removing access to a healthy living standard.

4. Indigenous and rural communities that depend on the natural environment as a source of food, shelter and general living materials are also affected by the war on drugs. The current approach to illegal drug regulation, involves eradicating drug crops where they are found, by process of deforestation and fumigation. As crops are destroyed, production is driven further afield to more remote locations, places that are inhabited by indigenous communities. As dependents on the land, indigenous communities often lack the resources to cope with pesticides that destroy their vegetation. By removing indigenous peoples’ propensity to harvest food, the war on drugs severely compromises their ability to survive, pushing them into irredeemable poverty.

The reality is that the current approach to the war on drugs disproportionately and dramatically affects the world’s poorest men, women and children by leaving them at the mercy of ruthless drug traffickers, crippling poverty and dangerous environmental conditions. Whilst tackling the illegal drugs trade is vital for global health and stability, the current approach has failed to improve life for the most vulnerable. The legacy of the war on drugs illustrates the danger of creating policies that seek to satisfy political frenzy ahead of basic human needs.


Demand Equity

4 ways the War on Drugs disproportionately affects the world’s poor

By Dean Bowen