War on illegal drugs failing, medical researchers warn

A syringe and heroin on a spoon The report said drug prices had fallen in real terms over 20 years, while purity had increased

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Illegal drugs are now cheaper and purer globally than at any time over the last 20 years, a report has warned.

The International Centre for Science in Drug Policy said its report suggested the war on drugs had failed.

The report, published in the British Medical Journal Open, looked at data from seven international government-funded drug surveillance systems.

Its researchers said it was time to consider drug use a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.

The seven drug surveillance systems the study looked at had at least 10 years of information on the price and purity of cannabis, cocaine and opiates, including heroin.

The report said street prices of drugs had fallen in real terms between 1990 and 2010, while their purity and potency had increased.

In Europe, for example, the average price of opiates and cocaine, adjusted for inflation and purity, decreased by 74% and 51% respectively between 1990 and 2010, the Vancouver-based centre said.

The report also found there had been a substantial increase in most parts of the world in the amount of cocaine, heroin and cannabis seized by law enforcement agencies since 1990.

Most national drug control strategies have focused on law enforcement to curb supply despite calls to explore other approaches, such as decriminalisation and strict legal regulation, it said.

It concluded: "These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing."

Start Quote

We desperately need to shift the regime from a prohibitionist one to one of legal regulation”

End Quote Transform Drug Policy Foundation

Co-author Dr Evan Wood, scientific chairman of the centre, said: "We should look to implement policies that place community health and safety at the forefront of our efforts, and consider drug use a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.

"With the recognition that efforts to reduce drug supply are unlikely to be successful, there is a clear need to scale up addiction treatment and other strategies that can effectively reduce drug-related harm."

The study comes two days after a senior UK police officer said class A drugs should be decriminalised.

On Sunday, Chief Constable Mike Barton, of Durham Police, said drug addicts should be "treated and cared for, not criminalised".

The chief constable, who is the intelligence lead for the Association of Chief Police Officers, told the Observer he believed decriminalisation would take away the income of dealers, destroy their power, and that a "controlled environment" would be a more successful way of tackling the issue.

He said prohibition had put billions of pounds into the hands of criminals and called for an open debate on the problems caused by drugs.

Mr Barton is among a small number of top police officers in the UK who have called for a major review of drugs policy.

'Tackle organised crime'

Danny Kushlick, of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, welcomed Mr Barton's comments and said prohibition of drugs had been a "miserable failure".

Overseas drug laws

  • Uruguay's House of Representatives has passed a bill legalising cannabis. Under the proposed law, which still needs to be approved by the Senate, only the government could sell the drug
  • In Portugal, people caught with drugs can avoid punishment if they agree to treatment
  • Cannabis is illegal in the Netherlands but sale and use are tolerated in about 700 coffee shops

"We desperately need to shift the regime from a prohibitionist one to one of legal regulation," he said.

He said criminalising drugs had "gifted one of the largest commodity trades on earth to organised crime".

"It's an absolute no brainer for any government that is thinking responsibly about how best to regulate these things that they look after them and don't leave it in the hands of criminals," Mr Kushlick added.

The Home Office said drugs were illegal because they were dangerous.

It said the UK's approach on drugs was clear: "We must help individuals who are dependent by treatment, while ensuring law enforcement protects society by stopping the supply and tackling the organised crime that is associated with the drugs trade."

No major UK political party supports decriminalisation of class A drugs, though the Liberal Democrats said Britain's current approach was "costly and ineffective".

A Lib Dem spokeswoman said the government should consider other approaches used overseas and should "always base drugs policy on independent scientific advice", but did not say the party would decriminalise any currently banned drugs.

Labour said it would not decriminalise any banned recreational drugs, while the Green Party wants to make cannabis legal.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    The dangers of drug use are well documented, yet there are those in society who continue to exercise freedom of choice and choose to take them. For 100+ years we have tried and failed to control these substances by alienating both the producers and users. We are faced with an unending battle placing tremendous pressure on our court and prison systems. We need to change, we need licensed drug use.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    @110.Balloon Rake
    '93% of people who use cannabis, cocaine and heroine go on to commit serious crimes.'
    Nice to see that you are making up stats then, for starters most cannabis and cocaine users are law abiding (other than drug use) tax paying citizens who cause less harm to society thatn the binge drinkers in town centres. Heroin should be treated rather than criminalised

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    93% of people who use cannabis, cocaine and heroine go on to commit serious crimes

    HAHA WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM??!! Wake up you complete fool! If that's the case then what you are saying is that 93 out of every 100 people you see in Amsterdam are serious criminals??!! Go back to bed you fool!

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    I am 64, and have 46 years personal experience of various illegal drugs. Cannabis should be legally on sale 24/7, to any adults who want to buy it, and people should be legally allowed to grow a limited amount of it for their own use. I have never known of anyone being made aggressive because of Cannabis alone, and everyone I have ever known with knowledge of Cannabis has said the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Are we realistically ever likely to win the war on drugs? I suspect that the answer is no. In which case, let's realise that like prohibition in 1930s America, the problem isn't going to go away.

    Time for a grown-up debate about this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    It makes sense for possession of small amounts of illegal substances not to be a criminal offence, but we should go after dealers and suppliers, especially where they target children and adolescents, much more rigorously, and supplying to under age users should always mean a long prison term.

    The substances themselves need to remain illegal off NHS prescription.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Cannabis, being a vegetable product, should surely count as one of your 'five a day'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    War? Really?

    I smoke weed.
    Man the barricades, the red coats are coming....

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    @110.Balloon Rake

    '93% of people who use cannabis, cocaine and heroine go on to commit serious crimes.'

    I've never used this annoying term before, but i think your comment deserves it - LOL !

    Utter nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    It's hard to believe that our greedy government would allow all these wealthy drug dealers to make all this tax free income, unless there was not something else the government wanted more... Control over the rest of us through the use of drug laws to 'protect us', which they are clearly failing at, perhaps?

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    110. Balloon Rake

    "93% of people who use cannabis, cocaine and heroine go on to commit serious crimes."

    Can you back that up with some evidence? Didn't think so. That is the problem with this debate, endless scaremongering and outright lies!

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    110.Balloon Rake
    "93% of people who use cannabis, cocaine and heroine go on to commit serious crimes." Love to see where you get that stat, at last count some 2 million people are casual users of canabis. Thats a lot of criminals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Politicians have long used drugs policy to make statements about what sort of people they are in preference to using it to solve real problems. With much of the electorate voting out of fear rather than experience, it's likely to stay that way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    There is a simple solution, if they can invent electronic cigarettes to prevent people smoking nicotine, then they could invent electronic marajuana, cocaine, heroine etc. This would eridicate crime and put the dealers out of business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    The War on drugs failing, yep everyone knows that, like why burn poppies in Afghanistan to prevent heroin production, when you can use them to make far cheap Di-Morphine, which is far cheaper than the stuff made by the big 3 Global pharmaceutical companies, plus would have crushed the Taliban, yet again who cares so long as our western politicians get money via the lobby systems world wide.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Really? My dealer keep sputting up prices and cuttig it further so the quality is worse! Ha ha ha

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    We should have more stringent laws on drugs, anyone found in posession or whos is caught using illegal drugs should be jailed for a minimum of 5 years, 93% of people who use cannabis, cocaine and heroine go on to commit serious crimes.
    Britain should never legalise these drugs, tougher laws is the answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    "Illegal drugs are now cheaper and purer globally than at any time over the last 20 years"
    Perhaps all of us should ask why this news doesn't apply to anything we'd like to acquire legally.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    The problem with the "war on drugs" is that the campaign has been and continues to be run by spineless liberals preoccupied with mollycoddling those who have deliberately made wrong choices.
    Those who suffer as a direct result of the crimes committed by addicts and dealers are barely given lip service.

    It's high time that drug dealing was made a very serious crime with equally severe punishment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    The war mon Drugs has not been working for years all that it has been doing is causing misery in south american countries with their team america world police routine and killing many inocents. a massive amount of cash is wasted on the policing and trials of users. Legalisation and taxation and education is the answer. Alcohol and cigs r the most dangerous drugs in our society and they are legal.


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