Why do we not learn from our mistakes? The Bangladesh government’s heavy-handed approach to the war on drugs will most likely meat the same fate as the costly failures elsewhere.
As we wrote in the Organization of American States (OAS) Drug Report of 2012, the so-called war on drugs in most of the world has been an abject failure that has ruined lives, filled prisons and wasted the public purse. Conceived during the Nixon administration with the idea that, because drugs are harmful to people, they should be challenging to get. What this meant is that it became a war on the supply of drugs.
Studies show that the United States has among the highest rates of drug use in the world. But even as restricting supply has failed to curb abuse, aggressive policing has led to thousands of young drug users filling American prisons, where they learn how to become real criminals. As Attorney General Eric Holder started to say, “we are not going to arrest our way out of this problem.”
The OAS also noted that the prohibitions on drugs have also created perverse economic incentives that make combating drug producers and distributors extremely difficult. The high black-market price for illegal drugs has generated enormous profits for the illicit actorsthat produce and sell them, profits that are then invested in buying state-of-the-art weapons, hiring gangs to defend their trade, corrupting public officials and making drugs more available.
Perhaps, even more, damaging the war on drugs which is, after all, is a war on your own citizens is destroying the credibility and legitimacy of state institutions the bedrock of democracy.
Meanwhile criminal networks, armed with money, technology and weapons are causing bloody mayhem in many countries. In Mexico alone, drug-related violence has resulted in over 100,000 deaths since 2006.
As even the most ardent drug warrior will admit focusing on drug supply has done little to curtail drug abuse while causing massive collateral damage. Last year in the United States over 60000 people died of a drug overdose alone. So, as I wrote in my 2015 book “If the War on Drugs is over Now What “there are some things that we can do.
First governments must acknowledge the failure of the prohibition strategy. Secondly, they need to recognize that drug addiction is a chronic illness that needs to be treated by mental health practitioners, not prisons. So, we must create effective treatment centers where people are willing to go without fear of being prosecuted and with the confidence that they will receive care. Third, they need to pursue rigorous and countrywide education campaigns against the use of drugs, like anti-smoking campaigns. Fourth, they need to ensure that their public security institutions are designed to meet the challenges of the 21stcentury that respects human rights and the dignity of all citizens, while dealing effectively with the real criminals.
Adam Blackwell is the former Secretary of Multidimensional Security at the Organization of American States, Chair of the Meta Council on the Illicit Economy at the World Economic Forum, writer and speaker on issues of public security.