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Collateral Damage: How the War on Drugs Has Ruined Lives, Health and Livelihoods in the Global South

There are millions of people living in the Global South whose lives have been altered or ended by the war on drugs. Lives of people who never opted-in to the war, some never even knew such a war existed, but nevertheless they have been caught in the crossfire.

There are millions of people living in the Global South whose lives have been altered or ended by the war on drugs. Lives of people who never opted-in to the war, some never even knew such a war existed, but nevertheless they have been caught in the crossfire. From an Afghani farmer eking out a living from his land, to a single mom in Ecuador supporting her family taking work as a mule, to a child in Vietnam who has lost the protection of her parents to prison and drug dependence - these are the victims of the war on drugs.

The 58th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs - an annual gathering which took place in March, where anti-narcotics officials, diplomats, and civil society advocates discuss the global drugs regime - was an opportunity to address the global discrepancy between those who set the prohibitionist policies and those who live with their consequences.

As in years past, this session of the Commission turned a blind eye to the full impact of the drugs regime. Once again, government representatives from the Global North and South failed to make the case that the greatest burden of this prohibitionist regime has been born by the world's poorest.

Once again they ignored the fact that the war on drugs is not only wasteful and ineffective, but also harmful and unjust.

Over $100 billion a year is spent enforcing global prohibition, an approach that fails to address - and even contributes to the flourishing of human rights abuses, violent crime, and corruption in the Global South.

Though 5 people had just been executed by firing squad in Indonesia for drug offences, and 9 more were to be executed in April, not a single word of condemnation or even thoughtful concern was expressed by the Commission.

According to the London School of Economics Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy, "Viewed from the perspective of producer and transit countries, prohibitionist drug policies are a transfer of the costs of the drug problem from consumer to producer and transit countries, where the latter are pushed to design and implement supply-reduction policies."(1)

A prime example of this transfer of costs is China's proposal, against the World Health Organization's advice, to restrict the trade of the anesthetic ketamine by scheduling it as an illicit substance.

Used as a hallucinogen by clubbers in the Global North, ketamine is also one of the most commonly used anesthetics in the developing world. Restriction of ketamine would severely limit surgery, particularly caesarean sections, in the developing world. It has been projected that the health of at least two billion people would be affected. The proposal was finally withdrawn, but the very fact that it was given consideration is worrying.

Another example of cost transfer can be found in the supply-side efforts at coca crop eradication. Aerial herbicide spraying puts the health and economy of local communities at risk, destroys food crops and water supplies, and causes forced displacement.

In addition to skin, respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments and an increase in the risk of miscarriages and birth defects, the World Health Organization recently reclassified the herbicide glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. Roundup, the glyphosate-based herbicide is the weapon of choice for aerial eradication of Colombian cocaine harvests. In the past two decades, more than 4 million acres of land have been sprayed. Not surprisingly, Monsanto and other manufacturers of glyphosate-based products have rejected the WHO decision.

Prohibitionist policies fuel violence and corruption that undermines security, stability, and democracy in the Global South. A recent report by Health Poverty Action states, "The vast sums of money tied up in the drug trade allow drug cartels to exert a powerful influence over governments, security services, and local communities through bribery and intimidation." Proceeds of the illicit drug trade have funded organized and armed criminal groups in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.(2)

In West Africa, international cartels transiting drugs from Latin America and Asia into and through West Africa are colluding with local officials, financing local political campaigns, and disrupting democracy and development. A report by the West African Commission on Drugs concluded that, "criminalization of drug use worsens health and social problems, puts huge pressures on the criminal justice system and incites corruption."(3)

In North, Central, and South America increased militarization of the War on Drugs coupled with expanded police authority and areas of corruption of local authorities has led to social destabilization, the erosion of public safety, and the death of thousands of citizens, activists, and journalists. In Mexico alone, more than 70,000 people have been killed in the drug war since 2006.

A rising tide of voices are demanding drug policy reform that respects human rights, promotes public health and security, and democracy. We missed the boat at the 58th Session of the Commission, but there are other opportunities leading up to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016.

The next opportunity to influence the international drugs regime will be on May 7th during the High Level General Assembly Thematic Debate in New York. Part of the process leading to the UNGASS, the Thematic Debate will assess the achievements and challenges in countering the world drug problem, within the framework of the three international drug control conventions by, "addressing measures to reach an effective balance between supply and demand reduction measures and addressing all the consequences of the world drug problem, including in the health, social, human rights, economic, justice and security fields."

This is a critical opportunity for the world's leaders to listen to these courageous voices and own up to the miseries that the War on Drugs has perpetrated on millions of the world's poorest and most vulnerable.


1) Ending the Drug Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy. 2014.


2) Catherine Martin. 2015. Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs is harming the world's poorest. Health Poverty Action. London, UK. Web.< >

3) Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa. West African Commission on Drugs. Web.