The current enforcement regime is not only failing to win the ‘War on Drugs’, it is also fuelling and prolonging the conflict. This Adelphi analyses the destabilising effects of prohibition and examines its alternatives.

The world’s wealthiest nations have expended vast blood and treasure in tracking and capturing traffickers, dealers and consumers of narcotics, as well as destroying crops and confiscating shipments. Yet the global trade in illicit drugs is thriving, with no apparent change in the level of consumption despite decades of prohibition. This Adelphi argues that the present enforcement regime is not only failing to win the ‘War on Drugs’; it is also igniting and prolonging that conflict on the streets of producer and transit countries, where the supply chain has become interwoven with state institutions and cartels have become embroiled in violence against their rivals and with security forces.

What can be done to secure the worst affected regions and states, such as Latin America and Afghanistan? By examining the destabilising effects of prohibition, as well as alternative approaches such as that adopted by the authorities in Portugal, this book shows how progress may be made by treating consumption as a healthcare issue rather than a criminal matter, thereby freeing states to tackle the cartels and traffickers who hold their communities to ransom.

'The IISS provides a detailed and dispassionate analysis of this phenomenon and highlights the need to consider alternative approaches.’
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil; Chair, Global Commission on Drug Policy

‘A sober, thorough and elegant assessment of the War on Drugs and why it has failed so badly.’
Misha Glenny, journalist and author of McMafia: A Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld

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  • Introduction

    There can be few subjects that are debated with such passion as the international trade in illegal narcotics. The debate, driven as it is by a complex array of moral, ethical and ideological factors, many of which cannot be quantified, raises some fundamental questions about individual liberties and the rights of governments to constrain these liberties. Few governments have countenanced challenges to the prohibition-based approach to narcotics governed by the...
  • Chapter One: The evolution of the international drugs trade

    The long history of the drugs trade began with the production and use of cannabis, opiates and coca leaves for both medical and religious purposes. Opium and cannabis were cultivated in the Mediterranean region from the Neolithic era (7000 BCE to 3000 BCE) and the chewing of coca leaf in the Andean region of Latin America can be dated back to c. 1000 BCE. For most of recorded history the use...
  • Chapter Two: Prohibition

    By the turn of the twentieth century the world seemed awash with opiates and coca-based drugs. Opium had become a major factor in the economics of Western imperial policy, in particular that of the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands. The Opium Monopoly in British India accounted for 20% of government revenues. In Malaya revenue from opium sales met 53% of the UK's colonial administration costs and in the Dutch...
  • Chapter Three: The producer states

    Colombia's experience over the past 40 years offers a paradigm of the impact that illegal narcotics trade can have on national and human security. Colombia's difficult geography has always militated against the establishment of a strong, centralised government, even in the pre-Columbian period (pre-1492); the country's recent history has been characterised by high levels of political violence that long pre-dated its emergence as a global centre for cocaine production. Indeed...
  • Chapter Four: The transit regions

    Drugs clearly have a significant impact on Mexican society, when one considers the plight of 1,500 Mexican cities that are currently infiltrated by cartels. Approximately 450,000 people are involved in the cultivation and trafficking of narcotics, the illicit market for which is estimated at $14 billion per year (marijuana: $8.5bn; cocaine: $3.9bn; methamphetamines: $1bn; heroin: $400million). Mexico has a long history of illicit drug trafficking dating back to the 1910s, when...
  • Chapter Five: Alternatives to prohibition

    The case studies set out in previous chapters by no means tell the whole story when it comes to detailing the damage to vulnerable societies caused by the drugs trade. An equally valid case study would have been the Caribbean which, though no longer the principal conduit for Latin American cocaine destined for the United States, remains deeply involved in that trade. As a result, the region suffers from an...
  • Conclusion

    An American tourist on a visit to his ancestral home in the south of Ireland became hopelessly lost in the narrow, winding, rural lanes. Eventually he came upon an elderly farmer from whom he sought directions. The farmer listened gravely, pondered for a while, then said, ‘Well Sir, if I were you, I wouldn't start from here’. After 50 years, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs has failed to prevent...

Nigel Inkster is Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Virginia Comolli is a Research Analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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