The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


The Limits of the War on Drugs

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on September 2, 2010
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The brutal massacre of 72 Central and South American migrants in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas by suspected paramilitary drug cartel Zetas on 24 August 2010 is a grim reminder that the military-led war against drugs in Mexico continues to get worse and shows no sign of ebbing. The migrants paid a heavy price for refusing to help the cartel smuggle drugs into the United States. This incident is not the first time that ordinary people are forcefully drawn into the drug conflict and surely it won’t be the last. Mexico declared “war” against drug cartels in December 2006. As of August 2010, the war has claimed more than 28,000 lives, a majority of them ordinary civilians like the migrants massacred by Zeta (See key events in Mexico’s drug war).

Does an all-out war against drug cartels and traffickers offer a sustainable solution to the drug problem? Thailand offers an interesting case. The Thai governmant launched a full-scale war  on drugs in February 2003 resulting in the death of more than 2500 people in the first three months alone. Ten months later, the Thai government declared “victory” and for a while there was a sharp decline in illicit drug flows into the country. The Thai government however failed to address the demand side with equal zeal. And it is in response to demand that drugs started to flow into the country again. To put the volume of drugs flow into perspective, Thai police intercepted 1.2 million amphetamine pills trafficked from Myanmar in 2009. In the first six months of 2010 alone, 5 million pills have already been intercepted. As many as 300 to 400 million amphetamine pills were expected to be trafficked into Thailand by the end of 2010. Clearly, the so-called “war on drugs” is at best a reactive policy and does not offer a sustainable solution to drug problem.

The examples cited above are manifestation of the “law enforcement approach” to drug problems. The objective of this approach is to curb the supply and availability of drugs by targeting those involved in drug trafficking (individuals, groups of individuals, organised criminal groups etc.). However, targeting individuals or criminal organizations alone will not solve the problem because the incentives remain in place. In order to address the incentive, one must pay close attention to the dynamics of the drug market and, most importantly, the demand for drugs.

Drugs is a product of market forces (not the plotting of criminal groups or traffickers) and is highly profitable. According to the World Drug Report 2010, more than 15 million people worldwide consume illicit opiates – opium, morphine and heroin. The global demand for these substances is estimated at 3,700 metric tonnes (mt), which yields a market value of USD 65 billion annually (heroin alone commands an estimated annual market value of USD 55 billion). It is this huge demand that drives the market. In order to successfully address the drug problem, demand reduction measures such as early education programmes, quality health services, rehabilitation and treatment programmes etc. must be instituted. Addressing demand requires a whole-of-society approach in which governments, community groups, civil societies, NGOs etc. join hands in an effort to educate children, help addicts recover, and promote drug-free society. All these can be achieved with minimum cost to human lives.

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