Count the Costs highlights the social, economic and human costs of the ‘war on drugs’. Although many have acknowledged the harms caused by global drug policy, they are not systematically monitored. Our briefings set out those costs in greater detail.

Count the Costs also encourages the wider NGO community to engage in the debate on drug policy. So far over 80 organisations have signed up to the following statement:

The war on drugs is a policy choice. There are other options that, at the very least, should be debated and explored using the best possible evidence and analysis. We all share the same goals – a safer, healthier and more just world. Therefore, we the undersigned, call upon world leaders and UN agencies to quantify the unintended negative consequences of the current approach to drugs, and assess the potential costs and benefits of alternative approaches.


The costs of the war on drugs.

The disastrous unintended consequences of the war on drugs are so obvious even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime – the agency which oversees the current drug control system – has been forced to acknowledge they exist. However, shockingly, neither they nor anyone else has ever properly assessed whether the costs of this war outweigh its benefits.

After more than half a century of the war on drugs, we count the costs it has generated. Please visit the cost areas listed below to learn all the ways in which the current approach to is causing harm.

Count the Costs cover - Making Dangerous Safer
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Undermining Development and security, fuelling conflict.

The war on drugs is actively undermining development and security in many of the world’s most fragile regions and states.

Drug traffickers can be more confident of a reliable, cheap supply of coca leaf, poppy or cannabis if government employees, honest politicians and armies can be kept at bay, and if farmers have few alternatives to drug production.

As a result, traffickers prefer it if there is little economic infrastructure or governance in producing and transit areas. So they target weak states through equipping private armies, financing or merging with separatist and insurgent groups, and simultaneously corrupting politicians, police, judiciary, armed forces and customs officers.

In short, the profitability of illegal drugs encourages traffickers to lock producing or transit areas into multi-dimensional underdevelopment.

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Harming, not protecting, young people.

The war on drugs has long been justified on the grounds that it protects children and young people.

Its supporters claim that people who use and supply drugs must be arrested, criminalised, and in some cases even imprisoned or executed, in order to keep drugs off our streets and society’s youth safe.

But this approach has been tried for more than half a century now – and the evidence is clear.

Any marginal benefits that the approach may bring are dramatically outweighed by the costs it generates: the drug war, far from protecting young people, is actively putting them in danger.

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Deforestation and pollution.

One of the frequently overlooked costs of the war on drugs is its negative impact on the environment – mainly resulting from aerial spraying of drug crops in ecologically sensitive environments such as the Andes and Amazon basin. Chemical eradication efforts not only cause localised deforestation, but also have a devastating multiplier effect because drug producers simply deforest new areas for cultivation – the so-called ‘balloon effect’. This problem is made worse because protected areas in national parks where aerial spraying is banned are often targeted.

Illicit unregulated drug production is also associated with localised pollution, as toxic chemicals used in crude processing of coca and opium are disposed of in local environments and waterways.

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Promoting stigma and discrimination.

As with wars throughout history, the negative consequences of the drug war fall heaviest on the most vulnerable, excluded and marginalised.

Being positioned on the frontline, children and young people in particular have borne the brunt of the war on drugs, whether forced by poverty and desperation into becoming drug growers or foot soldiers of the cartels; as casualties of the drug war through prison time or criminal records for youthful experimentation; or by being orphaned as a result of the incarceration of parents on drug-related convictions.

Women have similarly suffered through exploitation by the trade itself (female drug mules are notably over-represented in prison populations), while drug-using mothers experience children being removed and denial of social services on release from prison.

Drug law enforcement can also become a conduit for institutionalised racial prejudice. Traditional practices and indigenous cultures have been criminalised and persecuted, while racial minority groups have frequently been disproportionately targeted and punished by enforcement and sentencing.

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Threatening public health, spreading disease and death.

The global war on drugs has historically been promoted as a policy that protects public health, on the basis that it can restrict or eliminate drug availability and use. Research shows it has failed to achieve either of these aims, with global trends in drug use – particularly high-risk use – rising consistently over the past half-century and illegal drugs cheaper and more available than ever.

Worse, the policy has increased the risks associated with drug use, tilting the market towards ever more potent and risky products often cut with contaminants, and encouraging high-risk behaviours (such as injecting) in unsupervised and unhygienic environments. As a result, users suffer avoidable neonatal problems, overdoses and poisonings, and contract blood-borne diseases – such as HIV and hepatitis – that can spread to the general population, as well as devastate drug-using populations.

Populist drug war rhetoric has also tended to push scarce drug policy resources into counterproductive enforcement, at the expense of proven public health initiatives, including prevention and treatment. It has also created obstacles to pragmatic harm reduction measures for the most vulnerable high-risk users.

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Undermining human rights.

The human rights of drug users and local farming communities growing drug crops are rarely even mentioned in political discussions, whether at the domestic or UN level. Yet in many countries, drug control efforts result in serious human rights abuses: torture and ill treatment by police, mass incarceration, executions, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and denial of basic health services.

Poorly scrutinised drug control policies and enforcement practices often entrench and exacerbate systematic discrimination against people who use drugs, impede access to essential medicines, and prevent access to harm reduction and HIV treatment services for marginalised high-risk populations.

Young people in particular, as both a key using group, and vulnerable population more broadly, have suffered a disproportionate burden of these human rights costs.

Local communities in drug-producing countries also face violations of their human rights as a result of campaigns to eradicate illicit crops, and related criminalisation of certain indigenous cultural practices.

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Creating crime, enriching criminals.

Far from eliminating drug use and the illicit trade, prohibition has inadvertently fuelled the development of the world’s largest illegal commodities market, estimated by the UN in 2005 to turn over more than $300 billion a year. Just as with US alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century, the profits flow untaxed into the hands of unregulated, often violent, criminal profiteers.

The negative consequences can be felt from the producer countries, where drug money fuels instability, conflict and corruption, through to the streets of Western consumer countries, which are blighted by warring drug gangs, street violence and high volumes of property crime committed by low-income, dependent users. This is over and above the criminalisation of hundreds of millions of consenting, non-violent adult drug users.

The trade is additionally undermining the international financial system through money laundering and placing an intolerable burden on overstretched criminal justice systems and overflowing prisons across the world.

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Wasting billions and undermining economies.

Whilst accurate figures are hard to come by, global spending on drug law enforcement certainly exceeds $100 billion each year. Given current economic conditions it is more important than ever that spending is effective and not a waste of taxpayer money.

However, the huge investments in enforcement have consistently delivered the opposite of their stated goals – to reduce drug production, supply and use. Instead they have created a vast criminal market. This in turn has substantial social and economic costs, through crime and ill health, far exceeding even the billions in enforcement spending.

There are huge opportunity costs to wasteful expenditure on this scale. As drug enforcement budgets continue to grow, other areas are being starved of funds, and cuts in government budgets are hitting public services and support for the needy.

Despite the appalling track record of failure, the level of value-for-money scrutiny applied to drug enforcement spending has been almost zero, at both national and international levels. At a time of global economic crisis, after literally trillions wasted over the last half-century, it is time to meaningfully count the real economic costs of the war on drugs.

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The Alternative World Drug Report, 2nd edition.

In April 2016, the world came together at the UN to discuss the future of international drug policy. It was the first time that far-reaching drug policy reforms were meaningfully discussed at such a high level.

The current enforcement-based, UN-led drug control system is coming under unparalleled scrutiny over its failure to deliver a promised “drug-free world”, and for what the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) describes as its negative “unintended consequences”. It is unacceptable that despite acknowledging these negative impacts, the UNODC does not include them in its annual World Drug Report, and neither the UN nor its member states have meaningfully assessed whether these unintended consequences outweigh the intended consequences.

The second edition of the Alternative World Drug Report fills this gap by detailing the full range of negative impacts caused by the drug war. It demonstrates that the current approach is creating crime, harming health, and fatally undermining all “three pillars” of the UN’s work – peace and security, development, and human rights.

The stark failure of the current system has meant that alternative drug policy approaches are a growing reality. This report therefore explores a range of options for reform, including decriminalisation and legal regulation, that could deliver better outcomes,.

The global prohibitionist consensus has broken, and cannot be fixed. This Alternative World Drug Report is intended to help policymakers shape what succeeds it.

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AWDR Executive Summary Cover
Executive Summary

Explore the Alternatives.

For over 50 years the punitive enforcement model of the war on drugs has dominated drug policy. As detailed elsewhere on this site, this approach has failed to achieve its stated goals, instead generating huge costs in terms of undermining public health and human rights, creating crime, fuelling stigma and discrimination, damaging the environment, and creating obstacles to development and security – all at a huge financial cost. Even a cursory evaluation of the past 50 years demonstrates a meaningful exploration of alternative policy approaches is not only rational, but an urgent necessity.

There are a range of alternative policy models available from increasingly punitive “zero-tolerance” enforcement, through various harm reduction strategies and options for decriminalisation of possession and use, to models for legal regulation of drug production and supply. Whilst some of these have been explored, others remain largely speculative, but clearly different policy models will be needed to address the challenges of different drugs, populations and environments.

The Count the Costs project is not prescriptive about which approach, or combination of approaches, will work best in any given scenario. Rather, as a group of individuals and NGOs with shared concerns around the failings of the war on drugs, we are seeking to encourage a meaningful exploration of the options, informed by the best possible evidence and analysis. This section of the website is a collection of resources that can help inform that process by outlining the options and supporting evidence.

Count the Costs - Options and Alternatives. Making Dangerous Safer
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