Can the war on drugs be won?

A picture of an illegal drug.

Winning the war on drugs is a laudable goal, but it is no easy task. Two powerful engines drive the illicit drug train—supply and demand.

For nearly a century, governments and police forces have concentrated on cutting back the supply. Their assumption was simple: No drugs, no drug addicts.

Attacking the supply


Toward this end, police drug squads have confiscated large consignments of drugs, and international collaboration has led to the detention of prominent drug traffickers. 

But the harsh reality is that while effective policing may force some drug traffickers to move elsewhere, seek other markets, or become more ingenious, it does not stop them.

 “We will never be a match for the drug dealers as long as they have unlimited funds and we have to fight budget wars,” admitted one narcotics expert.

A crime-prevention officer of the Gibraltar Police Force, speaks about the difficulty of controlling drug trafficking between Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.

We impounded nearly 400 kilos [880 pounds] of cannabis resin, most of this wasn't actually confiscated from drug traffickers; it was found floating in the sea or washed up on the beaches. That gives you some idea of the huge quantity of drugs that cross the Strait of Gibraltar every year. What we confiscate is just the tip of the iceberg. The haulers who do the run from Africa to Spain have speedboats that can run rings around our customs launch. And if they sense that they are in danger of being apprehended, they just throw the drugs overboard, so we have no evidence on which to charge them.”

Police face similar problems in other parts of the world. Ordinary-looking travelers, light airplanes, container ships, and even submarines smuggle drugs across oceans or through porous frontiers.

One United Nations report calculated that “at least 75 percent of international drug shipments would need to be intercepted in order to substantially reduce the profitability of drug trafficking.” 

At present, the rate of interception is probably not much higher than 30 percent for cocaine—and considerably less for other drugs.

So why don’t the governments attack the problem at its source and destroy all the cannabis crops, opium poppies, and coca bushes? 

The United Nations has recently recommended that step, but it is not an easy one. Cannabis can be grown in almost any garden. 

One major coca-growing area in the Andes is located in a region described as “outside state control.” Similar situations exist in remote areas of Afghanistan and Burma, which are principal sources of opium and heroin.

To complicate matters further, drug traffickers can easily switch to designer drugs, for which there is a growing demand. 

And clandestine laboratories can manufacture these synthetic drugs almost anywhere in the world.

Could more effective policing and stiffer prison sentences curtail the drug trade? 

There are just too many drug pushers, too many addicts, and too few policemen to make that method workable. 

The United States, for example, has close to two million people behind bars—many of them for drug offenses. 

But the threat of prison has not hindered people from taking drugs. 

In many developing countries where drug sales are booming, undermanned and poorly paid police forces find themselves helpless to stem the tide.

Can the demand for drugs be reduced?


If efforts to control the drug supply have proved futile, what about reducing the demand? 

The Time magazine states:

The war on drugs is really a battle for hearts and minds, and not merely an issue for police and courts and jails,” 

That is why some believe that education is the only way to combat illegal drugs. The crime-prevention officer mentioned above says:

Drug addiction is a social problem created by society, so we have to change society or at least change people’s way of thinking. We are trying to involve schools, parents, and teachers so that all will be aware that the danger is there, that drugs are available, and that their children could fall victim.”

Finding a global solution that will work


A few courageous traffickers have abandoned the drug trade. And various forms of rehabilitation have helped thousands of users to overcome their addiction. 

But, as the World Drug Report acknowledges, 

for the long-term, heavy drug user, sustained abstinence is the exception rather than the rule.” 

Sadly, for each addict who is rehabilitated, several new victims are ensnared. Supply and demand keep on growing.

If the war on drugs is to be won, there must be a global solution because the problem is already a global one. 

In this regard the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs notes: 

While drug abuse, drug trafficking and the criminality connected to the drug problem were in most countries perceived as one of the main threats to security, the public was less aware of the fact that illicit drugs were a global problem that could no longer be solved by national efforts alone.”

But will the governments of the world band together to eradicate this global scourge? Only time will tell.

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