Just Say No
Economists Slam the War on Drugs in a New London School of Economics Report
The ‘singular approach’ to fighting drug abuse isn’t working—and it’s time for a change, says a new report produced by the London School of Economics. What they suggest, in six steps.
In an 81-page report released Monday evening, the best and brightest minds in the economic drug policy world send the United Nations a loaded message about the drug war: Enough.
The individual analyses of the economists and drug policy experts, signed by five Nobel Prize winners in economics, expose the collateral damage of the drug war and offer suggestions on how the policies can—and should—change.
“Academics and economists have great insight into this issue—and for so long, they’ve been ignored,” said John Collins, the International Drug Policy Project Coordinator at the London School of Economics, which produced the report. “Evidenced-based data about the war on drugs has been lacking for too long. It’s time that something changes.”
Collins noted that the report, titled “Ending the Drug Wars,” is nowhere near a simple fix. “There is no single way to solve this issue,” he said. “It’s an extraordinarily complex issue. We’ve tried to fix it with a singular approach—the drug war—and that hasn’t worked.”
The LSE’s report joins a chorus of voices speaking out against the war on drugs in recent years. “We’re not saying, ‘In 30 years, this is what our drug policy landscape should look like,’” Collins said. “We’re saying, ‘This isn’t working. We need to start moving in a different direction.’”
Here, in five steps, is a summation of the LSE report’s road map:
1. A “drug-free world” is not plausible.
In the opening chapter, written by Collins, the economist argues that believing we’ll live in a world free from drugs one day is not only deluded, it’s counterproductive. Collins blames prohibitionist forces in 1961 for perpetuating this fantasy—which he says still exists. In a seemingly heroic attempt to make this fantasy come true, he argues, we’ve assumed that the illicit market can be tamed through enforcement. “A global system which predominantly encourages policies that transfer the costs of prohibition onto poorer producer and transit countries, as the current system does, is an ineffective and unsustainable way to control drugs in the long term.” Collins argues for the decriminalization of drugs, which he calls a “far more effective tool.”
2. Realize that prohibition isn’t necessarily the problem.
In the third chapter, “Effects of Prohibition, Enforcement and Interdiction on Drug Use,” Jonathan P. Caulkins, the H. Guyford Stever Professor of Operations Research and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon, argues that there are benefits to prohibition—such as reduced dependence. Caulkins suggests that the current failures of prohibition are “overstated” and that the benefits may outweigh the costs. One example he offers to support his point is a group of friends who want to get stoned and listen to jazz but instead decide to go to a movie. “How much they actually enjoyed going to the movies is a loss whose value should be charged to prohibition,” he writes.
3. But prohibition isn’t the answer, either.
The fourth chapter, “Why Is Strict Prohibition Collapsing?,” written by Daniel Mejia, an associate economics professor in Colombia, and Pascual Restrepo, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT, shows the dark side of Caulkins’s argument. Classifying prohibition as a system based on “ideological positions,” the two elaborate on the violence and corruption that can result from banning drugs. Statistics to support it are staggering. Since 2007, 220,000 people have abandoned Ciudad Juárez as a result of the war on drugs, according to the London School of Economics. The war on drugs in Colombia has led to the second-largest internally displaced population in the world.
4. Stop sacrificing basic human rights.
Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, a professor in the Legal Studies Division of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica (CIDE) in Mexico, argues that on top of the monetary costs of the war on drugs are the constitutional costs of “enforcing” what he views as an ideological war. “Creating an ‘exceptional’ regime of diminished fundamental rights goes against the logic of fundamental rights: that they can be universal,” he writes. “The structural design of constitutional government should not be adjusted in function of specific, purportedly transitory policies.”
5. Put an end to mass imprisonment of drug offenders.
On the heels of Madrazo’s claim, Ernest Drucker, adjunct professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, dives into one of the most costly, counterproductive byproducts of the war on drugs in America: mass imprisonment. Drucker details the grisly measures used to punish inmates brought in on drug charges in the U.S.—citing discipline that includes hard labor, severe mental and physical privations, isolation, body mutilation, and execution. The collateral effects, Drucker argues, show how imprisonment, human rights, and public health are related.
6. Make mistakes—then learn from them.
In the final chapter, UCLA drug policy expert Mark Kleiman and Jeremy Ziskind, a crime and drug policy analyst with BOTEC Analysis, dive into the early stages of cannabis legalization in the United States. In their chapter, the two stress the importance of allowing both Colorado and Washington the freedom to pursue their marijuana initiatives with “regulatory experimentation” to—put simply—figure out what works and what doesn’t. “The places that legalize cannabis first will provide—at some risk their own populations—an external benefit to the rest of the world in the form of knowledge, however the experiments turn out,” the two write. Most important, the two stress how vital the conversation surrounding these policies is. “Both sides of the legalization debate should acknowledge that the question is complex and the range of uncertainties wide.”
While Collins says he hopes the information in the LSE report will lead member states to back it publicly—so far, only Guatemala has formally done so—his main focus is on putting an end to the misinformation that has perpetuated the war on drugs. “People are afraid of drugs—rightly so, these substances can destroy people’s lives,” he said. “But their lack of knowledge results in vitriolic reactions, overreactions. At this point, they’re doing more harm than the drugs themselves.”