Why the ‘War on Drugs’ Must End

Punishing people who make the personal choice to consume
an illicit substance has no place in the 21st century.

There’s a dangerous myth in sections of the public that the ‘War on Drugs’ is coming to an end. It’s an idea that as Cannabis legalisation sweeps across the United States (US) and many other nations around the world, legal prohibitions against ‘drug’ use will soon be reduced or removed entirely. In reality, the ‘drug’ war has never been more ferocious, targeting minorities and the most vulnerable in the US and abroad. In 2018 there were more arrests for Cannabis in the US than in 2017, despite 11 states allowing legal Cannabis for citizens over 21 years of age. The FBI released figures that detailed 663,367 Cannabis arrests in the country in 2018. In Australia, Cannabis arrests account for the largest proportion of illicit ‘drug’ arrests. ‘Drug’-related offences take up a lot of the resources within Australia’s criminal justice system.

In 2016–2017 law enforcement made 113,533 illicit ‘drug’ seizures and 154,650 ‘drug’-related arrests. Indicators of Cannabis supply and demand in Australia provide a mixed picture, but overall point to a large, relatively stable market in 2016–2017. Specifically:
There was a record 10,987 Cannabis detections at the Australian border.
The number of national Cannabis seizures decreased this reporting period from a record high in 2015–2016, while the weight of Cannabis seized in 2016–2017 increased.
While national Cannabis arrests decreased this reporting period, the 77,549 arrests reported in 2016–2017 is the second highest on record. 

“‘Drug’ prohibition has been the main basis for police corruption since the 1970’s. And you had the US soldiers bringing in all these ‘drugs’ from Vietnam, so there was a huge supply coming in. So, you got a transition in the major source of money for corrupt police and it moves to ‘drugs’ very quickly by about 1970. And that’s just the criminal justice cost”, Dr John Jiggens, Author and Journalist, Queensland, Australia

Australia has paid a huge price, due in part to its policy of Cannabis prohibition, with an incredible increase in prison populations since the ‘War on Drugs’. In 2012 (figures for 2010-11) around 85,000 ‘drug’ offences were prosecuted in Australia. The cost to the criminal justice system in terms of law enforcement alone was $1.2 billion. About 60% of that went on policing: $800 million. 30% on prisons, not including cost of building new prisons. 10% went on the court system, largely because people pay their own costs. In 2015-16 it had gone up to 145,000 ‘drug’ offences prosecuted that financial year. The cost of ‘drug’ law enforcement, based on those figures, was about $3 billion, of which about $2 billion was going to the police, with most of the rest going to prisons.

The majority of Americans, according to polls in the last few years, support Cannabis legalisation. “Americans should be outraged police departments across the country continue to waste tax dollars and limited law enforcement resources on arresting otherwise law-abiding citizens for simple ‘marijuana’ possession”, National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Executive Director Erik Altieri said. Approval for legalisation of recreational Cannabis in Australia purportedly sits at around 42%, however, Cannabis possession and use is currently illegal. But around 30 years ago, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory removed criminal penalties for personal use of Cannabis. That means it’s illegal, but not a criminal offence. In all other Australian jurisdictions, charges of possession can be subject to diversion by police or court, allowing ‘offenders to avoid a criminal penalty. 

The global ‘War on Drugs’ has been fought for 50 years, without preventing the long-term trend of increasing supply and use. Beyond this failure, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has identified many serious negative unintended consequences. These costs are distinct from those relating to use and stem from taking a punitive enforcement-led approach that, by its nature, criminalises many users and places organised criminals in control of the trade. Although the list of negative consequences detailed by the UNODC is useful, it is incomplete. The costs of the ‘War on Drugs’ extend to seven key policy areas: economy, international development and security, environment, crime, public health, human rights, stigma and discrimination. Given the negative impacts of the ‘War on Drugs’, there is an urgent need to explore alternative policies that would deliver better outcomes.

In Australia, at the end of January 2017, Sydney’s senior law enforcement agency made the admission they had lost the ‘War on Drugs’. The revelation came that organised crime in NSW was out of control and anti-drug agencies were failing dismally to stem the tsunami of illicit substances flooding the streets.

“Organised crime in this state and the rest of the country is out of control and cannot be stopped without a radical change”, New South Wales (NSW) Crime Commission

The revelation followed a report by the NSW Crime Commission which found the rise of public enemies was “almost entirely driven by the prohibited drugs market”, and “Prosecution of offshore principals is complex, costly and generally beyond the capability of state agencies”. A senior law enforcement insider said. “We are not losing the war on drugs, we have lost it”. Current approaches to ‘drug’ policy in Australia and elsewhere have yielded limited success. The reliance on crude messages (total abstinence, Just say no to ‘drugs’!) and even cruder enforcement strategies (harsher penalties, criminalisation of users) have had little or no impact on the use of ‘drugs’ or the harmful effects on the community.

Across the world, Cannabis is just the tip of the ‘drug’ war iceberg. In the US, although the current incumbent in the office of President has spoken regularly about escalating the ‘War on Drugs’, blamed Mexico and drug cartels on the huge amounts of illicit substances entering the US – heroin, cocaine, opioids and fentanyl – he has largely ignored the elephant in the room; millions of Americans want and need illegal ‘drugs’ and illegality won’t stop them. According to a report from RAND corporation, in 2016, US citizens spent $150 billion on Cannabis, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. The opioid epidemic is the worst drug crisis in the country’s history, killing hundreds of thousands of people and costing trillions of dollars. Partly caused by pharmaceutical companies that saw an opportunity to make a fortune, some of the biggest, such as the Sackler family, are set to walk away from multi-billion dollar settlements with billions of dollars still in the bank.

pills and tablets

Over the past five years, the ‘War on Drugs’ around the world has continued. Honduras, for example, is a nation wracked by extreme violence and gang warfare. Much of the cocaine flowing into the US from South America transits through Honduras and the effect is a narco-state fully backed by the current US administration (and the one before them). Hundreds of millions of dollars of US military support has created a population fleeing its borders in huge numbers. Honduras is a failed state, partly destroyed by the immense power of drug cartels and criminal gangs trying to control the huge cocaine trade. The Trump era is seeing many vulnerable Honduran refugees being sent back to Honduras where they face threats and death. 

Guinea-Bissau in West Africa is a key cocaine transit hub between South America and Europe. Labelled a narco-state by the UN, 2019 saw the country’s biggest ever drug bust, nearly two tonnes of cocaine. Ongoing political instability ensures drug cartels view Guinea-Bissau as ripe for abuse. In the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, at least 30,000 mostly poor civilians have been murdered in the last three and a half years. Duterte remains a popular leader, able to convince a fearful population his deadly approach on methamphetamine users will bring societal renewal. The Philippines is what happens when the ‘War on Drugs’ becomes quasi-genocidal. In the UK, conservative governments have continued to punish the most vulnerable people with ‘drug’ dependence.

While use and abuse is soaring in the UK, the so-called ‘Uberisation’ of the trade in Britain has made it the cocaine capital of Europe, vast parts of the country lost to devastating austerity policies. These harsh economic cuts are directly tied to unhealthy use and abuse of cocaine, heroin and other illicit substances. The newly elected Boris Johnson government is deaf to the need for radical changes around ‘drug’ prohibition.

“The United Nations should exercise its leadership, as is its mandate … and conduct deep reflection to analyse all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that prevents the flow of resources to organised crime organisations”, President Santos, Colombia; President Calderón, Mexico; and President Molina, Guatemala. Joint statement to the United Nations General Assembly, October 2012

Ethan Nadelmann
, widely regarded as an outstanding proponent of drug policy reform both in the US and abroad, founded and directed the Drug Policy Alliance (2000-2017) and in a 2014 TED talk asked, “What has the War on Drugs done to the world? Look at the murder and mayhem in Mexico, Central America, so many other parts of the planet, the global black market estimated at $300 billion a year, prisons packed in the United States and elsewhere, police and military drawn into an unwinnable war that violates basic rights and ordinary citizens just hope they don’t get caught in the crossfire; meanwhile, more people using more ‘drugs’ than ever. It’s my country’s history with alcohol prohibition and Al Capone, times 50”. 

“It’s particularly galling to me as an American that we’ve been the driving force behind this global ‘drug’ war. Ask why so many countries criminalise ‘drugs’ they’d never heard of, why the UN ‘drug’ treaties emphasise criminalisation over health, even why most of the money worldwide for dealing with ‘drug’ abuse goes not to helping agencies but those that punish, and you’ll find the good old U. S. of A”. According to Nadelmann, the good news is most politicians in the US wanted to roll back the ‘War on Drugs’ and put fewer people behind bars, not more. America was leading the world in reforming Cannabis policies with Cannabis legal for medical purposes in almost half the US’ 50 states. Millions of Americans can legally purchase Cannabis in government-licensed dispensaries.

Over half of all US citizens say it’s time to legally regulate and tax Cannabis, more or less like alcohol, as Colorado and Washington do. As for other drugs, look at Portugal, where nobody goes to jail for possession and government has made a serious commitment to treating addiction as a health issue. Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, England, where people who have been addicted to heroin for many years and repeatedly tried to quit and failed can get pharmaceutical heroin and help services in medical clinics. The results are: illegal ‘drug’ abuse, disease, overdoses, crime and arrests all go down, health and well-being improve, taxpayers benefit and many users put addiction behind them.


Most of the US Democratic candidates for President in 2020 have ‘drug’ policies that were unimaginable four years ago. Bernie Sanders advocates federal Cannabis legalisation by executive order, ending the ‘War on Drugs’, eliminating private prisons and reparation for communities disproportionately affected (largely minorities and people of colour). Joe Biden’s position on Cannabis appears to be he doesn’t support full legalisation (making him an outlier in the Democratic field). Elizabeth Warren has been vocal in her opposition to the ‘War on Drugs’, backs legalised Cannabis and safe injecting centres (a practice that already exists successfully in Europe and Australia).

One of the more exciting aspects of future US drug policy revolves around the medical use of such as LSD, ecstasy and psilocybin (‘magic mushrooms). Last year, Oakland, California became the second US city (after Denver, Colorado) to decriminalise magic mushrooms. The potential use of these to treat mental health issues, PTSD, addictions and end-of-life trauma are profound and scientific studies concur. Ecstasy could be legally available through a registered doctor by the beginning of the next decade.

“By maintaining prohibition and suppressing or avoiding debate about its costs and benefits, it can be argued justifiably that our governments and other community leaders are standing idly by while our children are killed and criminalised”, Australia21

Ethan Nadelmann posed the question, “Is legalisation the answer?” Legally regulating and taxing most ‘drugs’ that are now criminalised would radically reduce the crime, violence, corruption, black markets, problems of adulterated and unregulated ‘drugs’, improve public safety and allow taxpayer resources to be directed to more useful purposes. The markets in Cannabis, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are global commodities markets just like the global markets in alcohol, tobacco, coffee, sugar etc. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Knock out one source and another inevitably emerges.

People tend to think of prohibition as the ultimate form of regulation when it represents abdication of regulation with criminals filling the void. Which is why putting criminal laws and police front-and-centre in trying to control a dynamic global commodities market is a recipe for disaster. What we really need to do is bring the underground markets as much as possible above ground and regulate them intelligently to minimise the harms of ‘drugs’ and prohibitionist policies. The Australian Greens have made calls to end the ‘War on Drugs’ and legalise Cannabis, stating the ‘War on Drugs’ has been an expensive failure … Australia needs a new, realistic and evidence-based approach to ‘drug’ policy that reflects the reality of people’s lives.

Over the past few decades, the potential benefits of ‘harm reduction’ programmes in relation to a variety of social problems have been recognised. Such programmes accept risky behaviours cannot be completely eliminated and it is a valid aim of public health policy to reduce adverse outcomes they cause. Since the 1970’s this approach has been applied successfully in many areas, including road safety campaigns and programmes to reduce impact of alcohol and tobacco use and prevent spread of blood‐borne viral infections. One of the first harm minimisation programmes was introduction of compulsory use of seat-belts throughout Australia, early 1970’s. At the time, controversial, with opponents arguing it would cause drivers to behave more recklessly and actually increase the road toll. This did not happen and many other successful harm reduction programmes followed, including random breath testing, wearing helmets by bike riders, education campaigns about tobacco and alcohol use, introduction of needle exchange and methadone treatments, promotion of condom use and safe sex practices and widespread access to effective treatments for hepatitis C. Each of these programmes had to overcome vigorous and sustained hostility from opponents who argued they would do more harm than good, but in all cases the pessimists were wrong. As a result, the health burden from car accidents, alcohol and tobacco use, iHIV, hepatitis C and other dangers have been dramatically reduced.

Of course, ‘drug’ legalisation is only one aspect of changing societal attitudes towards ‘drugs’. Stigmas and stereotypes around use and abuse, pushed by many in the media for decades, must change. How we think, write and talk about ‘drugs’ has contributed to politicians believing they could prosecute a racialised ‘drug’ war for over 100 years. For example, racial bias is endemic within the management of the opioid crisis in the US; white sufferers benefit from doctors prescribing drugs to treat their problems while black sufferers are either ignored or denied appropriate medication. Ending the drug war is more imaginable now than at any time in the last half century. It won’t happen overnight, nor with Trump in the White House, but the appeal of harsh prohibition is dwindling. While the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continues to receive obscenely huge amounts of government largesse, so many Americans now use and abuse ‘drugs’ it’s the height of futility to try to stop it. Punishing individuals who make the personal choice to consume an illicit substance has no place in the 21st century.

“We need to turn our backs on the failed prohibitions of the past and embrace new ‘drug’ policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, where people who come from across the political spectrum and every other spectrum as well, where people who love ‘drugs’, people who hate ‘drugs’ and people who don’t give a damn about ‘drugs’, but every one of us believes that this ‘War on Drugs’, this backward, heartless, disastrous ‘War on Drugs’, has got to end”, Ethan Nadelmann

Adapted from Why the War on Drugs Must End with Australian Law Enforcement have lost the “War on Drugs”Pill testing warrants assessment in careful pilot programmesHistory, not harm, dictates why some drugs are legal and others aren’t, The War on Drugs: Options and Alternatives and Why we need to end the war on drugs


HEMP Party (Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party)


  • The HEMP Party is all about re-legalising the whole plant including recreational Cannabis.
  • We do what we can, when we can, with very limited funds.
  • The HEMP Party would like to see an end to the demonisation of Cannabis in every way.
  • And for very good reasons; food, fuel, fibre, medicine and recreation.


One thought on “Why the ‘War on Drugs’ Must End

  1. Pingback: The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition (Part 3) | Hemp Edification

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