5 Nobel Prize Economists Call for End to Failed War on Drugs

London School of Economics released a report calling for experimentation in drug policy.

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The war on drugs is a global disaster, ranging from mass incarceration to violent, billion-dollar cartels. It is a public health nightmare, and a social justice embarrassment that targets communities of color and locks them up for profit. When the UN General Assembly convenes its special session on drugs in 2016, it should take heed of a groundbreaking report released May 7, which exposes the injustices of the drug war.

Five Nobel Prize economists have weighed in on the repercussions of the global war on drugs, outlining “the effects of prohibition on security, drug prices, rule of law and public health,” according to a press release. It concludes that governments would make better use of their money and resources by supporting evidence-based policies, and calls on these governments to do so.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina announced the report, titled “Ending the Drug Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy,” during a live event at the London School of Economics, which published the paper.

In addition to the economists (Kenneth Arrow, Sir Christopher Pissarides, Thomas Schelling, Vernon Smith, and Oliver Williamson), international players such as former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Nick Clegg signed the report’s foreword, signaling the level of attention that may be awarded to this report, and perhaps, a shift in policy to be expected on the horizon.

The report mounts a hefty case based on economic analysis, highlighting a variety of consequences suffered globally as a result of the war on drugs. Among the examples, the report points to correlations between Colombia’s growing illegal drug trade (which increased 200 percent between 1994 and 2008) and its homicide rate. There are around 3,8000 homicides each year “that are associated with illegal drug markets and the war on drugs,” the report says. Farther north, Mexico has experienced a tripling of its homicide rate in a four-year span from 2006 to 2010.

The document’s Nobel Prize-winning authors turn their attention to the drug war's relationship to overflowing prisons, explaining that an estimated 40 percent of the world’s 9 million incarcerated individuals are behind bars for drug offenses. In U.S. federal prisons, this figure went from 25 to 59 percent from 1980 to 1998.

Meanwhile, it is estimated that 70 to 85 percent of the United States’ inmates are in need of substance abuse treatment. And, according to the report, treatment would be a more effective means of handling drug offenders. The report recommends giving top priority to public health policies, rather than criminal justice policies.

“The drug war’s failure has been recognized by public health professionals, security experts, human rights authorities and now some of the world’s most respected economists,” said John Collins, coordinator of LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project, in a press release. “Leaders need to recognize that toeing the line on current drug control strategies comes with extraordinary human and financial costs to their citizens and economies.”  

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Elizabeth Limbach is a journalist based in Santa Cruz, California.