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".

"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 legalisation 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.

The Green Party wants to decriminalise cannabis.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 506.

    Two articles and Have Your Says on the same subject on consecutive days.

    For God's sake, we all know cannabis should be legalised to break the link between drug supply and criminals. We all know it is harmless and non-addictive, unlike tobacco and alcohol.

    Sort it out Dave!

  • rate this

    Comment number 505.

    "The problem arises that it affects others & not solely the one taking it."

    Which is why we've banned alcohol, tobacco, McDonalds and contact sport.

  • rate this

    Comment number 504.

    @485. Rob_NW ,
    I read that report, its hardly science, pure speculation with no evidence presented at all.
    I understand the strengths have increased over the years, but this is why controlling it makes more sense.
    Even if this were the case 30000 deaths by canabis, it must already be happening, so some extra money from taxing it would help the costs of related illnesses/ effects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 503.

    @488 David - you are absolutely right but that's what populist politics gets you.

    Policy decisions are no longer made for the public good but for votes (or money).

    This is where we are, and we are all to blame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 502.

    @480 U cannot take drugs of any sort in the streets in Holland - Cannabis is decriminalised, but not legal like tobacco.
    The police can still stop you and remove anything from you that you are doing in public..
    @ 485 yeah because they roll their reefers with tobacco, not because of cannabis itself - More studies have been conducted since ur 10yr old report
    Alcohol is more dangerous

  • Comment number 501.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 500.

    480. I go every year m8, usually Amsterdam,usually January time, as the coffeeshops aren't as busy, and that's when the temple ball arrives :D

    Been to Rotterdam, Ternuezen and a few other places too, I'm almost a native ;D The artis zoo is well worth a look too, albeit a bit sparse and cramped for the animals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 499.


    I agree, legalising would easily undercut illegal dealers, provided you are prepared to spend the vast sums needed to create your own production and supply networks and treat the extra addicts the new cheaper, more widely available drugs would create.

  • rate this

    Comment number 498.

    Also the Government should look at this from an economic stand point. The economic benefits would be profound;
    reduced cost of policeing
    less people in jail
    new industrys started - new jobs and economic growth
    tourist industry would explode
    tax on the drugs themselves
    Not to mention the moral side of the debate and the fact that Prohibition puts normal people and children at risk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 497.

    People who think legalising drugs will get rid of the criminal gangs are dillusional as they will simply undercut the price just like the thriving cigarette and alcohol black market

    The only way to get rid of of the crimnal gangs is to give the stuff away for free

  • rate this

    Comment number 496.

    Illegal and 'Legal highs' are a real gamble for the user, a totally unnecessary gamble that kills people, all because of the law
    Legal or not, the only person who is responsible is the person that chooses to take the drug. The fault & responsibility is theirs alone. The problem arises that it affects others & not solely the one taking it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 495.

    If drugs are legalised then what sort of brand names and health warnings would we expect on the packaging?

    Cannabis - Brand name: Amnesia - Causes memory loss and personality changes
    Cocaine - Brand name: Delusion - Causes paranoia and itching
    Heroin - Brand name: Bogfree- Causes constipation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 494.

    @485 Rob_NW - "That's an urban myth. This is the reality.."

    No, it's speculation, and it's a decade old. Read the third sentence, it assumes cannabis is as harmful as tobacco and goes from there. That's not scientific research, it's guessing. And in ten years it hasn't been confirmed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 493.

    It's up to the people to decide if they want currently illegal drugs to be decriminalised. If the people decide they want to continue with prohibition, then it is time to enforce prohibition through tough laws on possession - both person and bloodstream. This is the only way prohibition will work. It worked with sport doping.

    Random blood tests with short custodial sentences for second offenders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 492.

    Stop talking about prices and your ends

    You will have rozzers knocking on your door.

  • Comment number 491.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 490.

    @472. 'there are plenty of legal highs out there, just use them instead'

    Legal is not the same as safe. Nutmeg is legal, though in large doses it is a hallucinogen. In similar doses it is also exceedingly harmful and can be fatal.

    Cannabis, however, although it does have its dangers, has no known LD50.

  • rate this

    Comment number 489.

    I notice with all the current talk carefully avoids Cannabis, which could be legalised and taxed to provide considerable extra revenue, while guaranteeing appropriate labelling and safety, denying the drugs cartels (and the banks that launder the money for them [tis true, search for HSBC drug money laundering]) of considerable funds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 488.

    The only thing that annoys me about this issue is the politicians not listening to the scientists. I find it very frustrating with any issue where expert scientists inform politicians, the politicians don't agree with them, and ignore the advice when forming policy. Drugs policy (including alcohol and cigarettes) should be informed by medical science. Smoking is usually fatal. Why is that legal?

  • rate this

    Comment number 487.


    Sorry Ernie, I was being scarky.

    I quite agree with you this problem could be solved if a safe supply was implemented. This means legalising, similar to the Dutch system were tax is paid and the purity is monitered, also the strength is given (like alcohol in this country) so people know exactly what they are taking.


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