The war on drugs is affecting the developing world, but not in the ways you might think

Drug War casualty. The body of a young man shot in 2013 in Acapulco, Mexico

When many people think about the war on drugs, a common image often comes to mind: poppy and coca fields set ablaze by law enforcement agencies in Afghanistan and Colombia.  While this often shapes the media narrative and the policies governments implement, other areas which are impacted by these policies are often ignored.

For today’s podcast, we talk with Natasha Horsfield – policy and advocacy officer at Health Poverty Action – about how the world’s war on drugs is hindering economic and social development in developing countries, but not always in the ways you might normally think.

Natasha Horsfield

Natasha Horsfiled, policy and advocacy officer at Health Poverty Action.

To begin with we start unwrapping a truly astronomical figure: that waging the war on drugs costs the international community an estimated $100 billion, which is just $30 billion shy of the total international development budget. Horsfield argues that money spent on maintaining drugs prohibition is having a harmful effect on countries’ development.

“$100 billion dollars spent globally on a project which has essentially failed and is having really negative impacts on all of these different aspects of development; and then you’re only spending slightly higher than that globally on trying to improve development indicators across the board,” she says, adding that “money is being invested in global prohibition which is actually probably holding back the return on investment for some of the aid budget as well.

In April, a Global Commission on Drug Policy report criticized the effects of current policies and called for rethink on global drugs prohibition.  The report cites examples of where decriminalization has worked across the world, such as in Portugal, which has seen no increase in drugs users, despite lax policies. Portugal has decided instead to offer services for drugs users, helping them to heal and rehabilitate. On the other hand, the report criticized draconian drugs policies in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte stands accused of ordering the extrajudicial killings of thousands of drug users and dealers since elected.

Since the mid-20th century, strict prohibition and criminalization of drug cultivation, production, trade, possession and use has dominated global drug policy. Not only do these policies fail to achieve their immediate aims, but they also often undermine development interventions to tackle poverty, improve access to health, protect fragile environments and uphold cultural and human rights. Since President Richard Nixon waged the war on drugs, intensified by President Ronald Reagan, more than $1 trillion has been spent with next to no results.

Currently the illicit drugs market is worth $320 billion –  at a conservative estimate – which accounts for a minimum of 50 percent of the value of global illicit financial flows, and is equivalent to almost 1 percent of global GDP.

The war on drugs also affects a country’s ecosystem protection – take Peru, where the illicit drug trade has been responsible for 10 percent of rainforest destruction over the past century. It also stops the development of morphine, which comes from the opium poppy – and is used for pain relief management for AIDS and cancer sufferers.

The WHO estimates that 90 percent of the world’s AIDS patients and 50 percent of global cancer patients living in low-middle income countries have access to just 6 percent of the morphine used for pain management globally.

This particularly affects regions of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa where access to opium-derived pain relief is almost negligible.

“You look at vast swathes of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia: access [to morphine]is right down to no statistics at all because that’s where the impact is being felt – it’s really a situation of extreme inequality in access which heavily impacts people in developing and middle income countries,” Horsfield said.

The Global Commission on Drugs  report argues that a lack of access to these drugs violates international human rights when it comes to health.

These are just a few overlooked effects of the war on drugs, and there are many more.

Health Poverty Action is an organization which looks at the multidimensional factors that affect health indicators.

It lobbies government for change, focusing on the issues that health policy decision-makers often overlook, as well as strengthening health systems. Health Poverty Action looks laterally at how issues such as nutrition, water, sanitation, immunization, income generation and women’s empowerment affect overall health.

Prior to joining the organization, Horsfield worked in policy and campaigns for both U.K.-based and international organization. She has worked on a wide thematic range of topics: from drug policy, water sanitation and hygiene, older people’s rights, gender and development and land and natural resource management. This puts her in a great position to look at some of the wider issues at play for today’s topic.

But before the chat, podcast producer Imana Gunawan and executive editor Tom Paulson chat about positive stories in the new year, including our list of top five reasons why 2017 will be better than 2016, as well as efforts to tackle inequality in Costa Rica and Indonesia.

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About Author

Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com