Global report: Prohibition, drug law enforcement drive violence, gun offenses and homicides

International Centre for Science in Drug Policy says decades of scientific data reveals strong link between drug prohibition, black market profits and crime


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ICSDP_Violence_Report_-_front_cover.jpgLiverpool, England and Vancouver, British Columbia – A comprehensive study released today by the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP) exposes a deep connection between drug law enforcement efforts and increased drug-related crime, homicide and gun violence.

The new international scientific think tank conducted a systematic review of all available English-language scientific literature dating back more than 20 years to examine the impacts of drug-related law enforcement on drug-market violence. The review – released during Harm Reduction 2010, the 21st international conference on the reduction of drug-related harm – captured more than 300 reports for further analysis and identified 15 international studies examining the impact of drug law enforcement on violence. Contrary to the prevailing belief that drug law enforcement reduces violence, 87% of the studies observed that drug-related law enforcement was associated with increasing levels of drug-market violence.

“From a scientific perspective, the widespread drug violence in places like Mexico and the U.S., as well as the gun violence we are increasingly seeing on city streets in other countries, appears to be directly linked to drug prohibition,” said co-author Dr. Evan Wood, a researcher at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) and founder of the ICSDP.

“Prohibition drives up the value of banned substances astronomically, creating lucrative markets exploited by local criminals and worldwide networks of organized crime. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that any disruption of these markets through drug law enforcement seems to have the perverse effect of creating more financial opportunities for organized crime groups, and gun violence often ensues.”

The scientific review notes that drug prohibition has created a massive global illicit drug market, with an estimated annual value of US$320 billion. Further, several of the studies included in the report suggested that violence stems from power vacuums created by the removal of key players from the illicit-drug market by drug law enforcement. As police use increasingly sophisticated methods to disrupt drug-distribution networks, levels of drug-related violence may rise.

The research also reveals that governments that rely on a tough-on-crime approach to attempt to control drug-related harms will only burden taxpayers and will likely create more drug-market violence within their communities.

“The war on drugs does not work, period,” said Dr. Julio Montaner, President of the International AIDS Society and member of the ICSDP’s Scientific Board. “Countries around the world have invested in policing and other law-enforcement interventions to try to curtail the drug trade, but these efforts have not met the stated goals of reducing the supply of drugs or drug-related violence. We must take an evidence-based approach to dealing with the drug market, because current strategies are not working and people are paying for ill-considered policies with their lives.”

David Nutt, chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs and Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology, Imperial College London, said the ICSDP study reinforces that criminalization of illicit drugs leads to severe and unintended consequences that only become more entrenched through harsher enforcement.

For instance, Mexico has experienced extreme violence subsequent to the 2006 launch of a massive nationwide counter-narcotics campaign. Drug violence claimed 6,290 people in 2008 – double the number from the previous year – and more than 1,000 in the first eight weeks of 2009 alone. Since 2006, the total number killed has surpassed 17,000 people, including scores of judges, police, and journalists.

Dr. Nutt, a member of the ICSDP’s Scientific Board, suggested that governments around the world should look to countries with more effective evidence-based approaches to drug regulation. “We must assess the relative harms of all drugs and, where appropriate, look to novel strategies for reducing availability through regulatory models that do not create unintended harms such as enriching organized crime or increasing violence,” said Dr. Nutt. “The creation of a new international scientific body on drug policy such as the ICSDP represents a critical step forward in helping to educate the public and policymakers on the need for greater inclusion of scientific evidence into illicit drug policies.”

“Among all the harms related to drug use, it now seems that the very measures most countries use to reduce drug use are actually causing harms to drug users and the community,” said Gerry Stimson, Executive Director of the International Harm Reduction Association, and chair of the Liverpool harm reduction conference. “Law enforcement is the biggest single expenditure on drugs, yet has rarely been evaluated. This work indicates an urgent need to shift resources from counter-productive law enforcement to a health-based public health approach.”

The report recommends that alternative models of drug control be considered if drug supply and drug-related violence are to be meaningfully reduced. The report’s findings have received support from across the political spectrum.

“Drug violence is a fixture on the daily evening news, but that can change,” said Jeffrey Miron, Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University. “We need to work together to indentify and apply drug policies that reduce drug-related violence and other harms resulting from drug law enforcement.”

Michel D. Kazatchkine, the Executive Director of the The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and a member of the ICSDP Scientific Board, added: “In countries around the world, the vast majority of people who inject drugs still do not have access to evidence-based HIV prevention and treatment measures that respect, protect and fulfill human rights. Resources that are currently wasted on costly and ineffective enforcement measures could make a major difference if they were used for needle and syringe programs, methadone maintenance treatment, HIV and hepatitis treatment, and the other components of a comprehensive approach to addressing HIV and injecting drug use.”

He concluded: “Research such as that provided by ICSDP should encourage governments to enact evidence-based drug policies and vastly scale up effective prevention and treatment programs.”

Other members of the ICSDP include:

  • Dr. Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief, The Lancet
  • Dr. Don C. Des Jarlais, Professor of Epidemiology, Beth Israel Medical Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicines
  • Dr. Chris Beyrer, Director, John Hopkins Fogerty AIDS Int’l Training and Research Program and Director, John Hopkins Centre for Public Health and Human Rights
  • Dr. Steffanie A. Strathdee, Professor and Harold Simon Chair, Chief, Division of International Health and Cross Cultural Medicine, University of California San Diego School of Medicine

The report was externally peer-reviewed by Miron and other conservative economists.

The full 26-page report, Effect of Drug Law Enforcement on Drug-Related Violence: Evidence from a Scientific Review, is available online.

Study Methodology:

This comprehensive review of more than 20 years of existing scientific literature involved conventional systematic searching, data extraction, and synthesis methods, and adhered to the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines. A complete search of the English language literature was undertaken using electronic databases, the Internet and article reference lists from date of inception to October 2009.

The initial search captured 306 studies for further analysis. Of these, 15 were identified which evaluated the impact of drug law enforcement on violence: 11 (73%) presented findings from longitudinal studies using regression analysis, 2 (13%) presented theoretical models of drug market responses to drug law enforcement, and 2 (13%) presented qualitative data. Thirteen (87%) studies reported a likely adverse impact of drug law enforcement on levels of violence. That is, most studies found that increasing drug law enforcement intensity resulted in increased rates of drug market violence.


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