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Nobel Prize economists call for end to war on drugs

Nobel Prize economists call for end to war on drugs

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Five Nobel Prize-winning economists are calling for an end to the global war on drugs and a shift over to policies that focus on public health. The economists, along with over a dozen professors and politicians, have all endorsed a report released last night by the London School of Economics and Political Science, which breaks down the successes and failures of the worldwide drug war and finds that it has had "enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage." The report recommends that countries instead focus on individualized approaches to drug laws and encourages experimentation with lifting prohibitions.

Mass incarcerations, corruption, violence, human rights abusesThe report details a laundry list of negative results from the war on drugs, including "mass incarceration in the US, highly repressive policies in Asia, vast corruption and political destabilization in Afghanistan and West Africa, immense violence in Latin America, an HIV epidemic in Russia, an acute global shortage of pain medication and the propagation of systematic human rights abuses around the world." In part, the report finds that the drug war's failings come from its high costs for low returns and the unwillingness of countries where drugs are produced to risk their own security with enforcement efforts.

It hasn't been a complete failure, however. The report finds that in some areas, like the US, the reduced dependency achieved through strict prohibition can outweigh the financial costs. "The alleged ‘failure’ of the ‘war on drugs’ is a standard point of departure for discussions of drug law reform, but reports of prohibition’s failure – like those of Mark Twain’s death – may be exaggerated," writes Jonathan P. Caulkins, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of public policy. Even so, Caulkins notes the United States' prohibition is "rather extreme and inefficient" and that it's "gone beyond the point of diminishing returns." By cutting drug penalties in half across the board, Caulkins says that the US should would only see a "very modest" increase in use and dependency, yet have a "kinder, gentler prohibition."

That said, other sections of the report that look at the drug war from more than a financial perspective are more condemning of these strict policies. It notes that in the United States, such policies are viewed as legally enforced discrimination and can even be seen as curtailing constitutional rights due to their extremity. Writer Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, professor in the legal studies division of Mexico's Center for Research and Teaching Economics, says that this crippling of constitutional rights extends to other countries too, including Mexico, where organized crime suspects can be detained for extended periods of time without formal charges against them, and Colombia, where law enforcement also has expanded ability to search and detain suspects.

"The most immediate task is ensuring a sound economic basis for the policies."

"The drug war’s failure has been recognized by public health professionals, security experts, human rights authorities and now some of the world’s most respected economists," John Collins, the report's editor, says in a statement. "It will take time for a new international strategy to emerge. However, the most immediate task is ensuring a sound economic basis for the policies, and then to reallocate international resources accordingly."

The report makes a number of policy suggestions, including many to address the mass incarcerations resulting from the drug war. In particular, it recommends ending long mandatory sentencing and releasing existing offenders who pose no risk or whose long sentences no longer apply — as the US has begun to do in some circumstances. As for public health, the report says that governments should make support programs for drug users a priority. It also recommends that lawmakers make policies that can be updated and later adjusted based on their performance. It supports experimenting with new policies too, noting that legalization of marijuana in certain areas can provide valuable information to other countries, whether those policies succeed or fail.

Those involved intend to have the report sent to the UN. Guatemala’s interior minister will receive the report today and its president will proceed to present it at international forums, including the United Nations. "The UN must recognize its role is to assist states as they pursue best-practice policies based on scientific evidence, not undermine or counteract them." Danny Quah, professor of economics at LSE, says in a statement. "If this alignment occurs, a new and effective international regime can emerge that effectively tackles the global drug problem."

The report specifically calls out the United Nations' 2016 General Assembly Special Session on Drugs as an opportunity for countries to press for global change. It wants them to ensure that the UN's narcotics control board incorporates human rights guidelines, works to expand access to medications such as opioid substitution therapy, and doesn't try to interfere with countries attempting to regulate marijuana. But critically, the report concludes that a one-size-fits-all approach is not working — it believes the UN can significantly help, but mostly, it wants it to avoid impeding on countries' attempts to prioritize their drug policies toward harm-reduction and treatment.