Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Absolute and Final Victory in the War on Drugs

It is my privilege today to break major news: In less than a year, the trade in illicit drugs will be all but wiped out. Cocaine. Methamphetamine. Marijuana. All will vanish. And heroin, too. The timing for our soldiers in Afghanistan couldn't be better. Eliminate the illicit heroin trade and most of the Taliban's funding dries up. Total victory is at hand. Now, I would understand if the reader is a bit incredulous. After all, the news is full of stories about record heroin production, meth busts, grow-op raids and cocaine seizures. Prices are flat or falling, indicating supply is stable or growing. Can we really be on the verge of a drug-free world? Well, we must be. A United Nations declaration says so. In 1998, the UN hosted a General Assembly Special Session under the official slogan: "A Drug-Free World: We Can Do It." Many major leaders personally attended, including U.S. president Bill Clinton. There was massive media coverage. The point of this gathering was to produce a political declaration which would guide the decades-old global war on drugs. The United States was the main author of the first draft, and it was ambitious: The "eradication" of the illicit-drug trade would be complete by 2008. A group of Latin American governments got that softened slightly to the phrase "eliminating or significantly reducing." In the end, the declaration contained three main goals: * "... eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008." * "... eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit manufacture, marketing and trafficking of psychotropic substances, including synthetic drugs ..." * "... achieving significant and measurable results in the field of demand reduction by the year 2008." It was actually pretty gutsy of governments to sign onto this. As Pino Arlacchi, the UN's drug chief, wrote at the time, "there are naysayers who believe a global fight against illegal drugs is unwinnable. I say emphatically they are wrong." What if 2008 rolled around and the drug trade was as big as ever? People might conclude the naysayers are right. Well, 2008 is almost here and the drug trade is as big as ever. So the guardians of the status quo in Washington, New York and Vienna have a problem. How can they avoid being held to account for their commitments? How can they keep people from concluding that the global war on drugs is a futile and destructive mess? The first thing to do is downplay the 2008 deadline. In 1998, officials yammered about it to any reporter who would listen. But today? Why, there's nothing to talk about. Deadline? What deadline? That silence is working because, as every good spin doctor knows, reporters talk about what governments talk about -- and they don't talk about what governments don't talk about. That's standard operating procedure. But officials have also done something positively Orwellian. They've rewritten history. Gone is the goal of "eliminating or significantly reducing" the drug trade. Instead, we are told that 2008 "was set as a target date for achieving 'significant and measurable results' in drug control." (That particular statement comes from a June 13 press release of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.) Judged by the standards of unscrupulous manipulation, this is pretty clever. It's hard to argue you have successfully "eliminated or reduced" the drug trade when the world is awash in drugs, but the phrase "significant and measurable results" is so vague it's easy to spin the statistics to show success. Switch the goal and abject failure becomes proud achievement. And best of all, it's not entirely a lie because the phrase "significant and measurable results" does appear in the declaration, even if it only refers to one of the three main goals. Call it a "two-thirds lie." It's tempting to write all this off as bureaucratic game-playing, but it's much more than that. The world -- and that includes you, the Canadian taxpayer -- spends tens of billions of dollars every year trying to stamp out the illicit-drug trade. With that kind of money, we could do any number of things -- such as bringing AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria under control -- that would save millions and millions of lives. Is the global fight against drugs the best way to spend that cash? The answer has to be no. What good does it do us? The prohibition of drugs has enriched the world's gangsters, guerrillas and terrorists -- with results that can be seen from the deserts of Afghanistan to the streets of Toronto -- while bringing us not one step closer to the fantasy of a "drug-free world." In 1998, Pino Arlacchi said the naysayers were wrong. Give it 10 more years, he said. We did. The naysayers were right. And it's well past time those who make a living pursuing this mad policy were held to account.