It’s one of the signal images of the global drug war: a team of triumphant law-enforcement officers posing for the TV cameras with a pile of the illegal drugs they’ve just seized from the bad guys.
To judge from the pervasiveness of these photos, you might think that the world’s supply of drugs is waning.
But illegal drugs are more widely available than ever. A new study from the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, a research group based in Vancouver, British Columbia, shows that substances are getting more concentrated and cheaper, which suggests the world's drug supply is increasing.
“Those images on our TV screens are really just evidence of the success of the market,” said Dr. Evan Wood, scientific chair of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy and one of the authors of the study. “The notion is that we have done something that is protecting our communities. Unfortunately, that snapshot really doesn’t capture the reality of what’s happening in those markets.”
The research, published this week in the British Medical Journal, reveals that heroin, cocaine and cannabis have become cheaper in the past two decades, even as those drugs have generally become more pure and potent. Information about the potency of those drugs was culled from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and other government groups.
This evidence suggests that the world’s supply of illegal drugs has grown, despite an increase in drug seizures around the world, according to the report, which was funded in part by Open Society Foundations.
“Clearly these often violent interventions aimed at reducing the drug market don’t work,” said Wood, of the seizures. “You take the drug dealer off the corner, but that doesn’t make the market go away. It just creates an opportunity for somebody else.”
The study analyzed about two decades of data from government databases in consumer markets like the United States and Europe, and in drug-producing regions like Latin America and Afghanistan.
In North America, the price of cannabis dropped by 86 percent between 1990 and 2007, while seizures increased nearly threefold.
In Australia, the prices of heroin and cannabis both decreased by half during that period, and in Europe, the price of opiates declined by nearly three-quarters.
In Latin America, meanwhile, seizures of coca leaf shot up by 188 percent, and in Afghanistan, seizures of opium increased 12 times over.
The apparent ineffectiveness of these seizures suggests that governments should use other metrics, such as incarceration and overdose rates, to evaluate their drug policies, the study's authors concluded.
“We need to think about more meaningful measures of our policies,” said Wood. “There are actually meaningful metrics that we should be looking at instead of thinking that these seizures are helpful.”
The study adds heft to a growing body of research that paints the drug war as an expensive failure. According to estimates by the United Nations, worldwide consumption of opiates, cocaine and marijuana increased by 35 percent, 27 percent and 9 percent, respectively, between 1998 and 2008, despite an overall escalation in seizures and other drug-war tactics.
The United States is slowly starting to take a less punitive approach to substance use in the drug war. The Obama administration recently announced that it would no longer use lengthy prison terms to punish non-violent drug offenders, and elected leaders of both parties have called for reforms to policies that have defined the drug war for decades.