The Global Drug War in Numbers: 270 Million Users; a $330 Billion Black Market; $100 Billion in Wasted Law Enforcement

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its annual report today on the state of the global drug war. Despite some concessions about the need for increased funding of rehabilitation, the report does not bode well for drug policy reform advocates. The U.N. insists that legalization, which more and more countries in Central and South America are considering, would lead to substantial increases in drug use; that crop eradication efforts need to be supplemented with market-distorting subsidies to farmers; and that international police efforts need more funding. In other words, the U.N. wants to do more of everything it's already doing in the war on drugs. 

If there's a silver lining—and that's a big "if"—it's the U.N.'s acknowledgement that guns and chains are not the best way to treat drug use, and that the global drug war has had some unintended consequences. On that first point, the U.N. report states that

there is growing recognition that treatment and rehabilitation of illicit drug users are more effective than punishment.  

Of course, this does not mean abandoning law enforcement activities; instead, the supply and demand sides need to complement each other. This means balancing our efforts against drug trafficking with alternative development programmes for farmers and helping drug users to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

Because the U.N. employs "user" and "addict" interchangeably throughout its report, the implication (as noted in the passage above) is that all 270 million people who used drugs in 2010 (the U.N.'s most recent estimate) are social outcasts. That's simply not true. 

The other arguable silver lining is the U.N.'s admission that the drug war has had unintended consequences: 

The development of black markets and the opportunities they create for organized crime have been among the unintended side effects. Black markets are not specific to controlled psychoactive substances, of course, as they affect a broad range of regulated or prohibited goods and services. Effective drug control measures seem to have given rise to another main category of unintended consequences in illicit drug markets. These are various replacement or displacement effects, sometimes generically referred to as the “balloon effect.”

The list of unintended consequences doesn't end there, but you won't find the others in the U.N.'s report. For that, we'll turn to the U.K.-based Count the Cost Initative's "Alternative World Drug Report." The Count the Cost Initiative was started by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation as a way to tally the cost of the drug war. This year's numbers are pretty stark: 270 million users; a $330 billion black-market economy; $100 billion in wasted law enforcement dollars. 

Count the Costs makes the case that the unintended consequences of prohibition affect everything from the environment (crop eradication efforts lead illegal groups to use protected forests) to public health (the creation of designer drugs and the cutting of traditional drugs with harmful chemicals) to human rights (roughly 1,000 people a year are executed for drug-related crimes, and in many other countries, sentences are disproportionate to the crime). 

Some other big financial data points from Count the Costs' report: 

  • In 1998, the International Monetary Fund estimated that total money laundering represents 2-5% of global GDP. In 2009, the UNODC put the figure at 2.7% of global GDP, or US $1.6 trillion. 
  • According to the former head of the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, there was strong evidence that funds from drugs and other criminal activity were, “the only liquid investment capital” available to some banks at the time. He said that, “inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade,” and that, “there were signs that some banks were rescued that way.”
  • Drug-related corruption causes Mexic to suffer investment losses of up to $1.6 billion annually.
  • Prison spending in the U.S. increased by approximately 127% between 1987 and 2007.
  • In producer countries, state security agencies and the military often benefit greatly from increased enforcement efforts. In Colombia, for instance, defence expenditure increased from 3.6% of GDP in 2003 to 6% in 2006. This resulted in an actual increase of security forces from 250,000 (150,000 military plus 100,000 police) to 850,000 over the four years.

The big questions I had from skimming these two reports was this: Why doesn't the U.N. acknowledge the human costs of prohibition? And why does the U.N.'s report fail to mention the ongoing success of decriminalization in Portugal?

The Alternative World Drug Report suggests an answer: "Established under the three drug conventions, [the UN Office of Drugs and Crime's] default position is to defend these conventions, and seek consensus among the member states it serves. This lends itself to inertia rather than challenging the system it operates within."

The Count the Costs report serves as much-needed balast to the inflexible prerogatives of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. Another report out today by the reform-minded Global Commission on Drug Policy finds that prohibition is leading the to spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. 

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  • tarran||

    If I ever become supreme dictator for life of any country, the first thing we do is to leave the UN.

  • o3||

    u mean the assahola of anusistan?

  • Pip||

    Really, just STFU.

  • sarcasmic||

    Hey! Don't shut down urine when it's on a roll!

  • AlmightyJB||

    Or we could just stop pretending they matter.

  • sarcasmic||

    Because the U.N. employs "user" and "addict" interchangeably throughout its report, the implication (as noted in the passage above) is that all 270 million people who used drugs in 2010 (the U.N.'s most recent estimate) are social outcasts. That's simply not true.

    Aw, come one! A user is an abuser! A government sponsored television spot told me so!

  • Anomalous||

    I saw those TV spots too. They taught me that brains look like fried eggs.

  • sarcasmic||

    "I learned it from watching you, okay? I learned it from watching you!"

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • sarcasmic||

    Nice. And I was actually able to watch it. For some reason the internet gatekeepers have toned down the filtering a notch.

  • ||

    That's fucking awesome

  • shamalam||

    Teh awesome!!!

    We desperately need more satire like this.

  • Pip||

    This is your brain (picture of egg).

    This is your brain on drugs (picture of egg frying in hot pan).

    This is your brain on drugs with chorizos (picture of egg frying in hot pan with chorizos).

    Hat tip Juan

  • BakedPenguin||

    These are your rights (cracks open eggs into mixing bowl)
    These are your rights on the war on drugs (energetically whips eggs, dumps them into frying pan where they sizzle.)

  • ||

    I learned that if I get good enough shit I can talk to my dog or melt into a chair:

  • AlmightyJB||


  • ||

    Alt text

    Poppies... Poppies. Poppies will put them to sleep. Sleeeeep. Now they'll sleeeeep!
  • ||

    I do suddenly have this unusual hankerin' for some poppy seed cakes.

  • ||

    The Ay-rab market near me sells these nummy poppy seed cookies. The filling is a gooey sweet poppy seed mixture. I think it's Eastern Mediterranean in origin, although I don't recall seeing them in Turkey or Syria.

  • ||

  • ||

    Nummy is the word.

  • Fluffy||

    ...there is growing recognition that treatment and rehabilitation of illicit drug users are more effective than punishment.

    Unless their drug use has led them to complete operational breakdown as human beings - I'm talking skid row bum talking to stuff that's not there level breakdown - there's absolutely no grounds for declaring that they need treatment or rehabilitation, either.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    So how do you "punish" the crazy?

  • ||


  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Ok, fair enough.

  • ||

    Then to really twist the knife...

  • Carston||

    You just leave them alone and let them be...

  • o3||

    alotta potential taxes lost on weed. surprised *they* havent figured that out yet.

  • ||

    So naive.

  • Carston||

    Not sure which side you are calling naive. I am all for legalizing everything, but weed has been pushed so far underground, I see it remaining underground and for the most part untaxed after it is legalized.

    I don't mind though, that's less money and power for the Leviathan.

  • R C Dean||

    The development of black markets and the opportunities they create for organized crime have been among the unintended side effects.

    Don't make me say it.

  • ||

    Way ahead of you. Not interested in arguing it today. Res ipsa loquitur.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    The only argument to be made is this.

  • Paul.||

    The Count the Costs report serves as much-needed balast to the inflexible prerogatives of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. Another report out today by the reform-minded Global Commission on Drug Policy finds that prohibition is leading the to spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

    The U.N. hereby recognizes the contributions of the NGOs in this effort.

    Now on with our established plan...

    *gavel crack*

  • Pro Libertate||

    $330 billion. Well, there's your economic recovery right there. Legalize production in the U.S. right now.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Make that $430 billion.

  • ||

    We're all addicts now.

  • Pip||

    I'll drink to that!

  • IceTrey||

    270 million out of a population of 7 billion doesn't seem like that much of a problem. That's about .003 percent. Much ado about nothing.

  • Pip||

    Please move the decimal point one tick to the right (0.03%). Still much ado. Of course if drugs were legalized that figure would in just a few days jump up to 100%.

  • BakedPenguin||

    3.8% of the population.

    Even if it were a much larger percentage - iron bars aren't a cure, and force doesn't work. They only thing the UN's suggestion will do will ensure that addiction to illicit substances is a true misery.

    As opposed to say, addiction to cigarettes, where it's merely an annoyance and a long term health concern.

  • R C Dean||

    Less than 4% of the people on this planet use illegal drugs?

    That sounds low to me, by a factor of at least 3.

  • Rasilio||

    Yeah I was thinking the same thing. It's got to be at least 10%, unless they truely did mean full blown addicts make up 3% of the global population with a larger percentage (12 - 15% maybe) using in any given year.

  • CE||

    What about all the jobz though?


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