The international community is further away than ever from realizing a ‘drug-free world’. Global drug production, supply and use continue to rise despite increasing resources being directed towards enforcement.

• The UNODC’s ‘best estimate’ for the number of users worldwide (past year use) rose from 203 million in 2008, to 243 million in 2012 – an 18 per cent increase, or a rise in prevalence of use from 4.6 per cent to 5.2 per cent in four years.
• Global illicit opium production increased by more than 380 per cent since 1980, rising from 1,000 metric tons to over 4,000 today. Meanwhile, heroin prices in Europe fell by 75 per cent since 1990 and by 80 per cent in the US since 1980, even as purity has risen.

• The international drug control system is, by its own admission, ‘floundering’ in the face of the proliferation of novel psychoactive substances (NPS). In 2013, the number of NPS exceeded the number of drugs prohibited under the international drug control framework.

Punitive drug law enforcement fuels crime and maximizes the health risks associated with drug use, especially among the most vulnerable. This is because drug production, shipment and retail are left in the hands of organized criminals, and people who use drugs are criminalized, rather than provided with assistance.

• Clandestine production and retail often leads to adulterated drug products of unknown potency and purity that pose significantly higher risks. Examples of this problem include heroin contaminated with anthrax and cocaine cut with levamisole (a deworming agent).

• More than one third (37 per cent) of Russia’s 1.8 million people injecting drugs are infected with HIV.
Owing to a preference for criminalizing users, access to life-saving harm reduction services, such as needle exchange and syringe programs (NPS), is either highly restricted, or in the case of opioid substitution treatment (OST), banned outright.

• The current drug control regime has generated significant legal and political obstacles to the provision of opiates for pain control and palliative care. There are over 5.5 billion people with severely limited or no access to the medicines they need.

• Restrictive policies increase the risk of premature death from overdoses and acute negative reactions to drug consumption. For example, in 2010, there were more than 20,000 illicit-drug overdose deaths in the US. Naloxone – a drug that can counter the effects of opiate overdoses – is still not universally available.

Punitive approaches to drug policy are severely undermining human rights in every region of the world. They lead to the erosion of civil liberties and fair trial standards, the stigmatization of individuals and groups – particularly women, young people, and ethnic minorities – and the imposition of abusive and inhumane punishments.

• Although the death penalty for drug offences is illegal under international law it is nevertheless retained by 33 countries. As a result of such offences, around 1,000 people are executed every year.

• Drug law enforcement has fuelled a dramatic expansion of people in detention (prisons, pretrial detainees, people held in administrative detention).
Many people are held in mandatory ‘drug detention’ centers, including some 235,000 people in China and South East Asia.

• Globally, more women are imprisoned for drug offences than for any other crime. One in four women in prison across Europe and Central Asia are incarcerated for drug offences, while in many Latin American countries such as Argentina (68.2 per cent), Costa Rica (70 per cent) and Peru (66.38 per cent) the rates are higher still.

• Drug law enforcement disproportionately impacts on minorities. In the US, African Americans make up 13 per cent of the population. Yet they account for 33.6 per cent of drug arrests and 37 per cent of people sent to state prison on drug charges. Similar racial disparities have been observed elsewhere including the UK, Canada and Australia.

Rather than reduce crime, enforcement-based drug policy actively fuels it. Spiraling illicit drug prices provide a profit motive for criminal groups to enter the trade, and drive some people who are dependent on drugs to commit crime in order to fund their use.

• Drug prohibition has fuelled a global illegal trade estimated by the UNODC to be in the hundreds of billions. According to 2005 data, production was valued at $13 billion, the wholesale industry priced at $94 billion and retail estimated to be worth $332 billion. The wholesale valuation for the drugs market is higher than the global equivalent for cereals, wine, beer, coffee, and tobacco combined.
• Illicit, unregulated drug markets are inherently violent. Paradoxically, successful interdiction efforts and arrests of drug cartel leaders and traffickers routinely create power vacuums. These in turn can spur renewed violence as the remaining players compete to gain market share.

• The trafficking in illicit drugs can strengthen armed groups operating outside the rule of law. For example, the opium trade earns paramilitary groups operating along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border up to $500 million a year.

Criminal drug producers and traffickers thrive in fragile, conflict-affected and underdeveloped regions, where vulnerable populations are easily exploited. The corruption, violence, and instability generated by unregulated drug markets are widely recognized as a threat to both security and development.

• Estimates of deaths from violence related to the illegal drug trade in Mexico since the war on drugs was scaled-up in 2006 range from 60,000 to more than 100,000.
• Illegal drug profits fuel regional instability by helping to arm insurgent, paramilitary and terrorist groups. The redirection of domestic and foreign investment away from social and economic priorities toward military and policing sectors has a damaging effect on development.

• In Colombia, approximately 2.6 million acres of land were aerially sprayed with toxic chemicals as part of drug crop eradication efforts between 2000 and 2007. Despite their destructive impact on livelihoods and land, the number of locations used for illicit coca cultivation actually increased during this period.

Tens of billions are spent on drug law enforcement every year. And while good for the defense industry, there are disastrous secondary costs, both financial and social.

• The emphasis on counterproductive law enforcement strategies to tackle drugs generates ‘policy displacement’. In other words, it distracts attention and resources from proven health interventions, other police priorities, and other social services.
• The illicit drug trade creates a hostile environment for legitimate business interests. It deters investment and tourism, creates sector volatility and unfair competition (associated with money laundering), and distorts the macroeconomic stability of entire countries.

• The illicit drug business also corrodes governance. A 1998 study from Mexico estimated that cocaine traffickers spent as much as $500 million a year on bribes, more than the annual budget of the Mexican attorney general’s office. As of 2011, Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking groups launder up to $39 billion a year in wholesale distribution proceeds.