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close this bookIllicit Drugs: Social Impacts and Policy Responses (UNRISD, 1994, 19 p.)
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This question encompasses some of the world’s most hotly debated policy issues. Should stronger interdiction campaigns be undertaken against drug producers and traffickers? Should economic incentives, educational campaigns and other activities be undertaken to encourage people to change their behaviour as consumers or producers? Should the “war on drugs” be declared to have been misconceived, and expanded discussions be undertaken about some controlled form of decriminalization and legalization?

Responses vary according to people’s values and views. The primary focus of drug control policies in most parts of the world has heretofore been on supply suppression through drug crop eradication and disruption of trafficking channels. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that North America, Western Europe and other net consuming regions are unlikely to solve their illicit drug consumption problems through the continuation of current supply suppression strategies. Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on controlling supplies, the successful capture of major traffickers and dismantling of their drug empires, and the weaning of peasant growers away from coca and opium via alternative crop incentives, the global supply and consumption of drugs has continued to grow.

The reasons for the failure of current drug control policies are numerous: the lack of alternative income-earning possibilities among rural people in net producing countries is too substantial, the price differential between licit and illicit crops is too great, the huge profits acquired by traffickers in illegal business are too enticing, and traffickers are too skilled at eluding law enforcement efforts. If supply suppression is successful in one area, crop production or drug refining activities quickly move elsewhere.

Moreover, even if supply suppression policies are successful in increasing the costs of supplying drugs, and reducing the amount of drugs on the market, consumption will only be reduced under certain conditions. Assuming consumption to be price responsive (a condition that does not always hold), prices can be driven up beyond people’s willingness or ability to pay only if true scarcity relative to demand is created. A well-known study undertaken by the Rand Corporation has suggested that, because the price of the coca leaf accounts for less than 1 per cent of the retail price of cocaine, even a crop eradication programmeable to triple the cost of production to the growers would raise cocaine prices in the United States by no more than 1 per cent. The same study indicates that, even if interdiction programmes were to become vastly more successful, and were able to intercept 50 per cent of the cocaine arriving from Colombia, US street prices would rise less than 3 per cent.

In most cases where supply control strategies have been implemented, grower and trafficker counter-strategies have been more than sufficient to maintain supplies on the market. In the United States, for example, in spite of the large tonnage of illicit drugs confiscated every year, drugs are as plentiful now as ever, and are sold at more affordable prices. In Colombia, despite the destruction of the Medellsyndicate, drug production continues as usual. Medells markets, resources, stocks and many of its personnel have been incorporated into the rival Cali syndicate, making it now the world’s leading cocaine trafficker.

Crop suppression strategies have been no more effective than efforts to control drug trafficking. Experience shows that pressure placed on growers is not sufficient to reduce drug crop production significantly. In Bolivia, interdiction efforts against processors and traffickers have brought down the price of coca leaves, leading to a slight drop in the amount of coca produced since 1989. In Peru, however, coca production increased between 1989 and 1992 by an amount equivalent to 73 per cent of Bolivia’s reduction. It is likely that one country’s success in reducing production will simply be another’s problem as traffickers, refiners and intermediaries migrate to places of least resistance and most opportunity, creating a demand for drug crop production. This phenomenon is referred to as the “balloon effect”: what is pushed down in one place simply springs up in another.

In some countries, cash rewards have been paid to growers who voluntarily eradicate their crops, in order to compensate them for their loss of income. However, in Bolivia for example, many of these growers simply moved to new areas and planted new drug crops in more remote areas, or eradicated only those crops that were old and unproductive. This has led many experts to argue that crop eradication should be rewarded not with monetary compensation, but with other crops or income-generating opportunities, or with social infrastructure such as better roads and services.

Another obstacle to successful crop eradication is lack of sufficient funds. National governments often argue that they cannot implement eradication programmes unless they have strong financial backing from international organizations and governments in the developed world. They frequently complain that the amount of money needed to replace drug-based economic activities is not forthcoming. But the funding agencies are reluctant to release large sums of money unless they are convinced that national governments are serious about implementing drug suppression programmes.

The fact that supply suppression, both absolutely and as a surrogate for consumption control, seems to be a general failure at present levels of investment in drug control indicates a need to re-examine drug control policies. The following sections examine the main types of strategies that have been proposed: (a) the intensification of crop suppression and interdiction efforts through greater militarization of the “war on drugs”; (b) greater implementation of “alternative development” strategies meant to wean growers away from drug crops; and (c) demand or harm reduction in consuming countries, including controlled legalization or decriminalization.


The failure of law enforcement agencies to control the supply of drugs in producing countries has led, in many cases, to an increased reliance on military intervention to bolster drug control efforts. This approach has been particularly emphasized by the United States in its relations with the Andean countries. To date, the so-called “war on drugs” in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru has involved large increases in US military assistance for anti-drug activities and the granting of aid to local militaries in addition to the anti-drug police. The US army has had little direct involvement in drug producing countries, but it has expanded its role in training, advising and assisting with electronic surveillance.

A 1990 agreement between Bolivia and the United States linked a five fold increase in US military aid to direct involvement of the Bolivian army in drug control operations. The agreement created substantial internal political problems for the Bolivian government and failed to make any significant dent in drug growing, processing or trafficking. By 1992 both governments had reduced their emphasis on the militarization policy.

Those opposing increased military involvement in drug control operations have a number of concerns. First, such policies work to strengthen the military at the expense of civilian governments. Especially in Latin America, which has a long history of military coups, this prospect is disturbing. Second, the army tends to focus on peasant drug crop growers as the easiest targets in its anti-drug operations, leading to a very real potential for a major escalation in human rights violations. Third, there is concern that increased military involvement will not be able to destroy the drug trade, but instead will lead to increased violence by prompting drug traffickers to strengthen their own military capacities. In addition, rural opposition to military activity seen as threatening peasants’ livelihoods might lead to the formation of armed opposition groups or increased rural support for existing insurgent groups - as happened in Peru when US-backed coca eradication efforts led to increased support for Sendero Luminoso.

Fourth, given the levels of poverty and the power of drug money in drug producing countries, increased contact between the military and drug traffickers may well result in increasing institutionalized corruption within the armed forces - which in many cases already have a history of maintaining symbiotic relationships with the drug industry. Finally, it is argued that increased militarization cannot be effective because it does not address the roots of the drug problem: poverty in developing countries and demand for drugs in developed countries.


In drug producing regions, the creation of alternative income opportunities through agrarian and other kinds of reform has been proposed to wean existing and potential growers away from production and trade in illicit drugs. Such strategies are termed “alternative development”. They are intended to address the reason that so many farmers in developing countries grow drug crops in spite of the risk involved: the fact that they have no other comparable economic opportunities. This approach recognizes that, in order to achieve long-run success, it is necessary to integrate peasants, producers and traffickers into the social and economic mainstream, and it emphasizes tailoring interventions to specific local level needs.

Alternative development in its many guises (e.g. crop substitution, socio-economic development, integrated rural development) has been attempted most vigorously in Bolivia and Thailand. Alternative development is more politically acceptable than more direct ways of reducing illicit drug supplies, since it promises new income opportunities within a context of socio-economic development. However, continued interdiction programmes are required for alternative development to work: disruption of the network of processors and traffickers reduces demand for raw drug crops, and thus leads to a fall in prices that is necessary for alternative economic activities to become attractive.

Alternative development in Bolivia has been enshrined in elaborate legislation based on the assumption that the failure of rural development has caused peasants to move into coca production. The Bolivian government, the United Nations and the US government vigorously support the policy of promoting rural development so that coca production will decline. Unfortunately, the programme has had relatively little impact to date, for numerous reasons. First, coca remains economically attractive compared to the alternatives: the income differential between coca and even the most remunerative non-drug crop remains large, coca plants yield an income within 12 months of planting, they have a long life, and they produce four crops a year. Second, coca is well suited to the social and economic conditions in Bolivia: it requires little technology and only manual labour for picking, and it has a well-established and nearby market not impeded by the poor transportation infrastructure of the region.

In addition, alternative development schemes in some areas have suffered from an emphasis on infrastructure rather than people, as well as from institutional in fighting and inadequate funding. In practice, the farmer participation envisioned by the programmes has not materialized, resources have been inefficiently allocated, and the market potential for proposed alternative crops has not been adequately researched. Another problem is that the “balloon effect” has contributed to the failure of even relatively successful regional alternative development programmes to make a significant impact on the global illicit drug trade (just as regional crop eradication and interdiction programmes have not been able to make a global impact). Thus, although alternative development initiatives are clearly a good idea, in practical terms a significant reduction of illicit drug production will not necessarily be their main outcome.


Efforts to reduce demand for illicit drugs include both sanctions and incentives. Sanctions focus on law enforcement initiatives meant to apprehend and deter consumers through fines, jail sentences and loss of privileges. Positive incentives have also been developed to offer people reasons to cease, or at least greatly to reduce, illicit drug use. The combination of sanctions and incentives is meant to create a climate wherein non-users are reluctant to take up the habit. Aside from law enforcement initiatives designed to raise risks for consumers, the demand reduction strategies of principal consuming countries have focused on popular education in the classroom and through the mass media, initiatives in the workplace, civic action, anti-contagion treatment programmes and efforts to develop an anti-drug ethos.

Intensifying the negative component of demand reduction strategies through increased reliance on prohibition, combined with law enforcement efforts that are increasingly tough on users, is likely to be effective only among two types of people: those who have something of value to lose and those who see themselves as having a future worth sacrificing for. Crack cocaine and heroin users who are members of the “underclass” might therefore not be much affected by such strategies.

Initiatives in the workplace to reduce consumption are principally based on drug testing, with threats of dismissal if positive results are returned. This strategy is unlikely to reduce demand for drugs among the burgeoning number of inner city crack users, arguably the greatest problem in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere. This approach presumes that the drug user wants employment and has it, that the employer values the employee and that they both have an incentive to work together to create a drug-free workplace. All these factors are unlikely to coalesce among unskilled, low-skilled or minimum-wage employees, who are usually quickly replaceable and are themselves likely to drift from job to job.

Education is one of the primary elements of the positive component of demand reduction strategies. If education within the classroom is to reduce demand, it needs to be coupled with community-wide integrated efforts, including the dissemination of explicit anti-drug values and peer modelling begun at a fairly early age. The mass media in several consuming nations have had some success in targeting certain audiences for such anti-drug campaigns.

Civic action is also a way to reduce demand for illegal drugs. Helping people to build homes, assisting the long-term unemployed to acquire skills and find jobs, creating educational and other opportunities for children in poor communities are activities in which communities have engaged, and which have had a positive impact on their drug problems. Raising community support for voluntary anti-drug service is a first step, but effective co-ordination is required to ensure that acceptable goals are pursued in productive ways. Some communities are attempting to orchestrate this co-ordination. In Detroit, Michigan, a community in one of the city’s abandoned-house districts has launched an effort to purchase “crack houses”, renovate them and sell them at low cost to senior citizens and single parent families who need housing and can be relied upon not to participate in the drug trade. Other community initiatives include self-help groups for addicts and an anonymous hotline for residents to report drug-related activities in their neighbourhoods without fear that their identity will be revealed.

Another demand reduction strategy involves treatment programmes, which are thought by some to be useful not only for addressing the addiction of individuals, but also for reducing the spread of drug addiction. The assumption underlying treatment as a strategy to reduce consumption is that drug addiction spreads like a contagious disease: most people become drug users and perhaps eventual addicts because friends have introduced them to the practice, pushing drugs to support their own addiction. Therefore, successfully treating addicts removes their economic need to market drugs to acquaintances and eliminates a large partof the reason for the spread of drug addiction. Accordingly, proposals have been made - by law enforcement officers, among others - for considerably more funding for drug addiction treatment programmes.

Finally, efforts have been made to develop an “anti-drug ethos” as a means of reducing demand. One of the strongest deterrents to the use of illicit drugs is people’s conviction that drug use is inappropriate, whether for moral or utilitarian reasons. If the fundamental values of a specific group of people change in ways which disfavour drugs, the reduction in consumption will be more lasting. This kind of value change is more likely to be brought about by persuasion than by coercion. Thus calls are made for the mobilization of community efforts to re-establish eroded social values and to provide substantial social incentives for people to reform their lifestyles.

All direct demand reduction options concentrate on users and assume that illicit drug use may be reduced by approaches that invoke fear, self interest or value change. An indication of drug policy priorities in the United States is given by the allocation of expenditures in the country: 75 per cent of total drug control expenditure goes for repression of consumption and supply, compared to 25 per cent for prevention, education, research and treatment. So far, an emphasis on fear (e.g. fear of jail and of property losses) has formed the basis of consumer-focused demand reduction policies. Not surprisingly, fear strategies work best on those in the middle class whose employment and property are at risk. Such policies have had no proven drug consumption effect on the economic underclass where much hard-core drug abuse takes place.


Decriminalization and legalization are not generally advanced as strategies to reduce drug consumption, but rather as possible ways to reduce the harm to society from drug abuse, particularly from drug-related crime and violence. Decriminalization proposals are a response to a belief that neither supply suppression nor demand reduction efforts will be successful in reducing drug abuse, and that the continued existence of a prohibition rme imposes unacceptable costs on society.

Legalization (officially authorizing currently illegal behaviour) and decriminalization (removing some penalties or at least “looking the other way”) may occur at the user, producer or trafficker levels in the drug chain, and may range from complete abandonment of controls to the selective relaxation of absolute prohibition. Most arguments in favour of some kind of liberalizing policy concentrate on decriminalizing or legalizing consumer drug use; a few advocate the same policies for drug production; hardly any are in favour of removing penalties for drug trafficking. Most proposals for drug use decriminalization focus on marijuana, several on cocaine, a few on heroin, while some would legalize all but crack cocaine. Another variant of the liberalization approach is medicalization, which allows those who need a certain drug to obtain it legally. Such a policy would obviously have to distinguish between different kinds of drugs and their effects both on the individual and on society.

Beyond reducing systemic crime, the proposals for legalization appeal to larger moral goals, such as enhancing public health and safety and invigorating a sense of community. An outright preference for unfettered freedom to consume psychoactive drugs is hardly ever advanced. Rather than favouring unqualified personal drug liberties, most proposals are meant to address the most feared consequence of prohibition policies and their implementation: drug-related crime. Accordingly, controls (regulation and taxation, perhaps similar to those for tobacco and alcohol in the United States) are called for, sometimes with the suggestion that tax proceeds from the legitimate sale of drugs be dedicated to consumer anti-drug education and to drug-related public services (for instance hospitals that care for infants who are born with an addiction to drugs).

If drug use were decriminalized in consuming countries, there would be no crime tax for traffickers, smugglers and pushers to reap and therefore no reason for them to carry out turf wars, assault police, terrorize neighbourhoods and undermine countries’ institutional integrity. A possible parallel situation is that of the crime syndicates in the United States after the prohibition on alcohol consumption ended in 1933: organizations associated with the production and sale of alcohol faded away, went into other criminal pursuits or invested their resources in legitimate businesses. With decriminalization, savings from a cutback in law enforcement expenses could be spent on other programmes, such as drug education and treatment. In terms of health, clean drugs, clean needles and a humane environment could reduce the incidence of drug-related HIV transmission.

A mix of decriminalization in consuming countries, combined with legalization of the coca-cocaine industry in producing countries, could eliminate the huge profits traffickers reap from their industry and at the same time rapidly reduce drug-related violence. In Bolivia, where drug-related violence has largely been avoided to date, legalization might have adverse economic effects in some sectors, as the price of coca would fall to roughly the equivalent of other agricultural crops. However, there is widespread and growing support in the country for legalization of coca (as opposed to cocaine). It is believed that legalization would help promote alternative coca products.

The primary opposition to the liberalization of drug policies is based on the belief that drug use would increase if the penalties on it were removed, and therefore that the adverse social, political and economic effects that societies endure would be as great or worse than those suffered under the present prohibition rme. There is also fear that children would be more exposed to drug use if the social stigma attached to it were removed. Finally, there are concerns about the practical difficulties of legal distribution of drugs to so many users (in the United States alone, there are eight million regular users of cocaine and heroin).

Increased drug abuse does not, however, appear to be the inevitable result of the liberalization of drug laws. In several Latin American countries, for instance, the easy availability of cocaine at low prices has not given rise to any substantial cocaine abuse problems. In Amsterdam, where both cannabis and cocaine are easily available, the use of both drugs is significantly lower than in the United States, where drug use penalties are severe.