Illegal drugs are the scourge of the modern world. They have the capacity to destroy everything in their path. It is critical that this problem is adequately dealt with.

But the global war on illegal drugs that was declared five decades ago has been a disaster for all except criminals.

First, demand and supply for illegal drugs is much larger now than when serious attempts at prohibition began in the 1960s. Since 1998 when the UN held an event entitled "A drug-free world: we can do it", consumption of cannabis and cocaine has risen by about 50 per cent, while for opiates, it has more than trebled. Globally, 16 million people use heroin and opium each year.

About 33.8 million people use amphetamine-type stimulants, and methamphetamine in particular each year. Cannabis remains the most widely used illicit substance globally by an estimated 180 million people, or 3.9 per cent of the global population aged between 15 and 64 currently use cannabis at least once a year.


New Zealand has a usage closer to 14 per cent. Around 15 per cent of these people smoke cannabis at least 10 times a month. Such traditional drugs are being eclipsed by the rise in new psychoactive substances. These are proliferating quicker than law enforcement agencies can track them. Their number, having doubled in fewer than five years, now exceeds the total number of traditional substances (234) under international control.

Society suffers more harm in terms of damage to its security because of illegal drugs that at any point in the last five decades. This comes from the creation, transit and sale of the illegal drugs as part of an industry worth, by the very roughest of guesses, US$300 billion ($366 billion) a year. This is a powerful catalyst for new drugs, routes, methods of transit and an endless supply of criminals or addicts willing to take all of the associated risks. Crime, conflict and corruption follow quickly. In worst-case scenarios, drug profits fuel wars from Columbia to Afghanistan.

In less terminal, but equally cancerous cases, drugs rot society from the inside. An estimated 5 per cent of all murders in the United States are drug-related, while in Mexico the estimate is 90 per cent. In addition to homicide, the need for cash for illegal drugs is closely linked to money-related crimes, such as shoplifting, robberies and burglaries, of which more than 50 per cent in many countries, is not uncommon. These social costs are multiplied when the opportunity cost of the police effort is put into this equation, as their work is diverted trying to stop an avalanche of drugs in the market and drug-related crime.

More people are addicted and suffering from illegal drugs than ever before. About 200,000 people worldwide die from drug abuse every year. Cocaine and heroin claim 27 million dependents. For the rest of the 4.4 per cent of the world population who use illegal drugs at least once a year, the costs range from the personal to social to economic. These relate to the degree of their dependency and how the people surrounding them can, or cannot, live with their habit. In between impacts which range from full to negligible, tens of millions of lives are ruined.

The question becomes: is there a better alternative? An attempted answer is found in breaking the silence around this subject and asking the heretical question whether prohibition of all of the illegal drug trade is still the right thing to do. This is especially the case with illegal drugs which probably cause less social impact than comparable, but legal, substances such as alcohol and tobacco.

It is this answer which is being tested before the United Nations holds a special session to discuss alternatives to the current global drug policy in 2016. Uruguay, Columbia, Mexico and Guatemala are at the forefront of this effort, calling for an urgent review of the approach of the international community in this area. Uruguay is now planning for its own authorities to grow and sell cannabis of a high quality for US$1 a gram, to combat drug trafficking and undermine the illegal trade. But the risk that they become a magnet for tourists with many undesirable results, including leakage to unappreciative neighbours, as has happened in the Netherlands, cannot be discounted.

Undeterred, similar measures have now been adopted in the states of Washington and Colorado in the United States, where both have adopted rules governing the sale of cannabis. These states will tax the profit of the growers. Colorado is expecting a US$60 million tax windfall in the first year.

In most of the above situations, the following steps include age and location restrictions, consumer warnings, quality control and education about risk, and social management and influence - not legal prohibition - towards phase-out goals. Next, the stigmatisation and marginalisation of people who are dependent on drugs is changed to see them as patients in need of treatment, instead of criminals deserving of punishment. When these people are no longer seen as an enemy to be fought, but as part of an interlinked health and social challenge to be managed, then a large perception of their coolness and associated attraction tends to disappear.


However, even if legalised, drug abuse will never vanish. Drug liberalisation does not remove addicts any more than alcohol liberalisation removes alcoholics. But these abusers can be managed in more constructive ways. More than that, if done correctly, the economic incentive which drives the cancer may be removed and may even be turned into a revenue stream that can be diverted to help those in need.

Of course, such approaches may not work. There are many uncertainties in this area, but we owe it to ourselves to start these debates. This is not because we like drugs, but rather, we realise that the traditional model of dealing with the problem has not reduced demand or supply, made communities safer, or dealt adequately with abusers and addicts.

Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at the University of Waikato.