Despite four-decade war on drugs, they’re purer and cheaper. Now what?

·National Affairs Contributor
Despite four-decade war on drugs, they’re purer and cheaper. Now what?

If you want an example of unbridled capitalism and the free market working at their best, look no further than the trade in illicit drugs.

In classic free-enterprise fashion, the purveyors of marijuana, cocaine and heroin have responded to consumers by supplying higher-quality products at lower prices.

And the impact of the war on drugs? Just a cost of doing business, apparently.

A report just published in the BMJ Open medical journal reveals more evidence the four-decade battle against the drug trade is being lost.

"With few exceptions and despite increasing investments in enforcement-based supply reduction efforts aimed at disrupting global drug supply, illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has generally increased since 1990," the study by Canadian and American researchers concludes.

"These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing."

[ Related: War on drugs 'not working,' Harper says ]

"By every metric, the war on drugs — which is estimated to have cost North Americans over the last 40 years over a trillion dollars — has really been hugely ineffective," Dr. Evan Wood of Vancouver, senior study author and founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, told the Toronto Star.

"Drugs are more freely and easily available in our society than they've ever been."

Woods, a University of British Columbia professor and Canadian research chair in inner-city medicine, said splashy police news conferences featuring mounds of seized drugs and stacks of cash and guns paint a misleading picture about enforcement's success.

Data the study's authors collected from seven government drug-surveillance systems suggest low prices and increasing purity point to an abundant supply of drugs.

For example, the researchers found that between 1990 and 2007, the average purity of heroin in the United States increased by 60 per cent, and for cocaine 11 per cent. Pot's potency soared by 161 per cent. Yet heroin and cocaine inflation-adjusted prices fell by 80 per cent, while cannabis was 86 per cent cheaper than in 1990, the study found, according to the Star.

The data from other countries, which did not include Canada because it only started tracking this type of information five years ago, showed similar trends, the Star reported.

Co-author Dan Werb said there's no correlation between drug seizures, which increased in the U.S. for heroin and pot, and the supply. He noted the total amount of drugs trafficked into the U.S. from Mexico each year fits into just 60 trucks, out of 5.5 million that go through the largest border crossing annually.

The study's conclusions are more evidence the drug problem should be treated as a public-health and not a criminal matter, Werb told the Star.

"For all the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent on reducing the supply of drugs, there really are no answers [there]," he said.

The Conservative government remains steadfast in the war on drugs, boosting support for enforcement, stiffening sentences for possession and trafficking and providing aid to Latin American countries seen as sources for drugs.

[ Related: Uruguay's pot legalization could be 'tipping point' in war on drugs ]

But Postmedia News reported in July that key partners in that fight, including Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, want to revisit the hard-line approach as they see no end to drug-related violence in their countries.

In an opinion piece in the Toronto Star last year, political scientist Peter McKenna said it's time for Ottawa to reconsider its commitment to the so-called war on drugs in Latin America.

"Such a hard-line, and often militarized, strategy to narcotrafficking has produced precious little in terms of tangible results," he wrote.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is adamant about prosecuting the war on drugs because of the products' demonstrably damaging impact on people's lives, McKenna noted. No argument there.

"The issue here, however, is not about the harmful effects of heroin and cocaine," he wrote. "It’s about how best to regulate, confront and diminish the negative ramifications of illicit drugs."

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