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Drug Prohibition Could Be a Total Waste of Our Time and Money

A new study on the global drug trade has found that efforts to combat the distribution and potency of illegal drugs has proven ineffectual.

The study, which was commissioned by the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP), is titled "The Temporal Relationship Between Drug Supply Indicators: An Audit of International Government Surveillance Systems." The researchers found that while the global price of illegal drugs has generally decreased, both the potency of illegal drugs and the seizures of such drugs has generally increased.

"With few exceptions and despite increasing investments in enforcement-based supply reduction efforts aimed at disrupting global drug supply," the study concludes, "illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has generally increased since 1990. These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing."

In a conversation with PolicyMic, the study’s author, ICSDP co-founder Dan Werb, emphasized the importance of the study’s findings.

"[They] lay bare, in a lot of ways, the limited impact that current approaches to controlling the supply of drugs have had. It’s evident from our findings that the price and purity of major illegal drugs like heroin and marijuana and — to a lesser extent — cocaine, particularly in the United States, seem to be generally unaffected by efforts to reduce supply. So what we’ve seen over the past 20 years, since 1990, is a massive increase in the purity of heroin, a massive increase in the potency of cannabis, and decreases in the price of heroin, cocaine, and cannabis, especially in the United States.

"It gives some indication," he added, "that our current approaches to tackling drug-related problems might not be the most effective."

In gathering data, the study set about examining government surveillance systems that collected data on drug-related indicators, like the prices of illegal drugs. Most of the information was collected from UN surveillance systems. 

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program, the organization that funded the study, stressed to PolicyMic the importance of such studies and their implications for policymakers. 

"It exposes how wrong the metrics of success are. Policymakers operate on the assumption that seizures and arrests are a measure of success because they assume that these actions limit the availability of drugs. But this important study proves these assumptions are wrong. We are pouring billions of dollars into interdiction and the market is barely affected.  Instead, greater purity of the substances is rewarded."

Not everyone in the field of drug policy agrees with the study's findings, however. 

Kevin A. Sabet, Director of the University of Florida's Drug Policy Institute and author of the book Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana, said in an interview with PolicyMic that, "The analysis largely ignores that a major drug of abuse — cocaine — has seen its price rise and use plummet as of late, likely due at least in part to the very strategies the researchers eschew ... Also, researchers did not take into account modern agricultural techniques as a possible explanation for increased opium and cannabis potency. The picture is nuanced, but we can all agree that demand reduction has to be a central part of any effective drug strategy. On the other hand, it is well understood that legalization would greatly slash the price of current illegal drugs, which are expensive precisely because they are illegal."

Regardless of their differences, however, both sides would readily agree that the need is upon us for major reform of the country's drug control regulations. And with the increased exposure and discussion that comes with studies such as these, America is finally beginning to have this conversation.

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