Effective Drug Policy: An Evidence-based Approach

Policy paper of the Effective Altruism Foundation (Published November 2016; Updated November 2019)

Each year, vast amounts of resources that could be used to tackle poverty, epidemics, and other urgent world problems are spent on fighting the war on drugs—a war which, even by its own standards, is a catastrophic failure. By denying people their human rights to privacy, health, and spiritual pursuit, the war on drugs (i.e. drug prohibition) has resulted in a wide range of humanitarian crises. Supplying the ever-present drug market has been left entirely to organized criminals, creating a black market of staggering proportions. With a combined annual turnover exceeding the GDP of most countries, organized drug smugglers have obtained the means to exert considerable political leverage, and are increasingly doing so in a number of developing countries. Meanwhile, the world’s quarter of a billion drug users live under a constant threat of mandatory jail sentences, degrading drug courts, and forced rehabilitation. In some countries, users face life imprisonment, corporal punishment, or even the death penalty. As a result, vulnerable users are increasingly pushed into high-risk environments away from police and health authorities, placing them at much greater risk of harm.

In contrast to many global crises, the war on drugs does not stem from technological limitations or scarce resources; rather, it is the result of ideology and ill-devised policy. Because of its political basis, drug prohibition and its negative consequences could be avoided if a new international drug policy were implemented. While political problems are not easier to solve than medical or technological ones per se, the global movement to reform drug policy has made considerable headway in recent years. Accumulating evidence from several national experiments on alternative drug policies—most notably in the United States, the birthplace of prohibition—is now putting considerable pressure on the UN to revise their drug control treaties. The current level of progress suggests that drug policy initiatives undertaken over the next few years may lead to several UN member states reforming their drug legislation in quick succession, forcing the UN to change their own position on the matter. Backing drug policy reform may thus present a uniquely cost-effective opportunity to simultaneously address a wide range of medical, judicial, military, and social crises affecting the world. Furthermore, because the majority of damage inflicted by the war on drugs takes place in developing countries—where the political and economic risks of challenging international convention are high—we consider it a special duty of stable, developed countries to pioneer drug policy reform in their own jurisdictions, thereby clearing a regulatory path that other countries may follow.

Read Full Text (PDF)