The irrationality of the war on drugs

Image: Josh Hild


In countries where the war on drugs continues, drug trafficking activities only grow, the number of consumers only increases, and corruption is increasing.

“Drug abuse is America's number one public enemy. To fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to undertake a new all-out offensive” (Richard Nixon, June 1971).

“The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world” (UN, Global Commission on Drug Policy, Annual Report, 2011).

“The war on drugs is a deadly detriment. It is much worse than any other effect you can think of. We have to seriously think about it, responsibly, carefully. But I think that the war on drugs, the way drugs are fought, causes irreparable harm to Brazilian society” (Sílvio Almeida, interview with BBC News Brazil, March 2023).

For a public debate on drug legalization

Recently, the current Minister of Human Rights and Citizenship, Sílvio Almeida, defended that the STF resume an action stopped in court since 2015, which deals with the issue of decriminalization of drugs.[1] It is true that all the reactionary obscurantism, which we have experienced above all in the last seven years, has not yet passed, even after the electoral defeat of Jair Bolsonaro at the end of 2022. But that is why it is so important to put a rational debate on topics such as This one.

Sílvio Almeida knows that Brazilian society (or at least most of it) is not prepared for the legalization of drugs. Asked about this, he replied: “It is not prepared, but it is the task of the Brazilian State, the Brazilian government, to prepare society for this, since we are talking about science. It's not a matter of guesswork. It's not an opinion." Perhaps with the exception of Canada, a country where marijuana is completely legal, which society today would be prepared to discuss the issue with care, tranquility and rationality?

A simple exercise of imagination

Imagine if around 60 years ago several countries decided to invest heavily in public health systems and declared “wars on disease”. Imagine several heads of state, health authorities, religious leaders, advertisers, the press, TV channels, public health specialists, doctors, teachers, mothers, fathers – in short, imagine everyone repeating and propagating, almost in unison, the idea of that it is necessary to put an end to diseases, eradicate them, create a “world totally free of diseases”, because they would be a true demon that needs to be extirpated from the planet, “a demon that is ending the lives of our children!”.

So imagine these countries investing billions and billions in public policy, involving battalions of health professionals placed on the front lines of the war to fight evil, equipped with increasingly powerful weapons, with increasingly sophisticated instruments and medical devices, and with increasingly powerful and accessible remedies and treatment modalities due to the gigantic health industrial complex.

But imagine that, after almost half a century of adopting this same policy, with small variations and adjustments over time, these countries would see, each year, an increase in the number of dead or sick people, as well as new diseases, with overcrowded hospitals , each with just three beds for every six admitted, half of them having to be treated in the hospital corridor.

Imagine also that, however, several studies showed that the greater the expenditure on health and the greater the intensification of the “war on disease”, the greater the number of deaths, illnesses and new diseases. And, finally, imagine if, even so, each year the rulers, political parties, health authorities and a good part of the great corporate media in these countries continued to defend the same policy of “war on diseases” to defeat “the demon that is destroying families and the lives of our children”.

Wouldn't that be very irrational? Wouldn't it be irrational to invest heavily in a public policy that receives more and more resources to increase more and more the problem that it seeks to reduce or eradicate?

Well, that is exactly, or almost, what has been happening since 1961, when several countries signed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs at the UN, and especially since 1971, when they signed, also at the UN, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. By signing these agreements, several signatory countries, such as Brazil, committed themselves to implementing “war on drugs” policies.

In Latin America and in several other parts of the world, this war intensified in the 1990s. And since then, in countries where the war on drugs continues, drug trafficking activities only grow, the number of consumers only increases, and in the State – police officers, judges, civil servants, politicians, government officials –, as well as in private companies (from small public transport companies to large banks, including gas stations), corruption is increasing.

It's a pointless war. And without end – because on the other side of the supply of products by traffickers is consumer demand, and these consumers are part of a long lineage of human beings who, for at least 5 years, have used psychoactive substances for various purposes, from medicinal to recreational , including religious purposes. Many of these psychoactive substances, mainly cannabis, have been among us for millennia; we humans have been using them for millennia, and there's no sign that we're going to stop.

The war that strengthens the enemy

"Le Roy is dead. Vive le roy!”. It was what was proclaimed, in the late Middle Ages, when a king died, to remind everyone that another king should immediately take his place. A king might be short-lived, but the lineage of kings should always be long-lived—one falls, another ascends the throne. When then-Pablo Escobar was killed on December 2, 1993, the Cali Cartel was ready to take over from the Medellin Cartel in the lucrative business of coca exported to the United States and other parts of the world. When a “king of coke” is killed, we can be sure that another will take his place.

DEA agents, the Drug Enforcement Agency (Drug Enforcement Administration) from the US, had been in Colombia since the late 1970s, carrying out anti-drug operations. States such as Florida and California were among the main consumers of Colombian coke. The United States wanted to destroy the main producer, so that coca would not enter the country. They dreamed of “cutting the evil at the root”. But it wasn't just a question of the inflow of coca from Colombia: it was also a problem of the outflow of US dollars flowing into the country of Pablo Escobar. For the US, it was necessary to put an end to that business. State business...

After nearly a decade of intensifying war against the Medellin Cartel, the magazine Forbes revealed to the world, in its 1989 list of billionaires, that Pablo Escobar was the seventh richest man on the planet, with an estimated fortune of 25 billion dollars. But Forbes he only started to publish his rankings from 1987 onwards. Escobar was, therefore, already very rich before that, and remained so until his death, appearing in the rankings of the richest people in the world. Forbes until the year of his death, 1993. The war on drugs only increased Escobar's fortune. He strengthened his business and increased his political and tyrannical power.

Like some tyrants, he attracted the poorest, building a neighborhood of houses for them in Medellín. But also, like a tyrant worthy of his fame, while the Forbes ranked among the richest in the world, Escobar had Avianca Flight 203 blown up, killing more than a hundred people in 1989. Four years earlier, when Colombia was trying to create a law to extradite Colombian drug traffickers to the United States, he had ordered assassinate half the justices of the Supreme Court. War, money, deaths – as can be seen, the tougher fight against drug trafficking in Colombia only strengthened Escobar's economic and political power.

It is not a difficult phenomenon to understand. There is at least one causal correlation between the war on drugs and the strengthening of drug trafficking, and it concerns the economic relationship between supply and demand. The drug lords are, above all, businessmen; they want money and organize to earn it. As the drug war intensified in Colombia, the price of coca rose in the United States. This made the business even more attractive: the profits are so high that they compensate for the risks and money is left over to corrupt police officers and other public agents.

What happened in the 1980s was also followed in the 1990s, with the even greater intensification of the drug war beyond Colombia's borders. While in Colombia the war was fought by air attacks, with the fumigation of plantations that began in 1994 – not without harmful consequences for the environment –, the price of coca rose in the United States, with the decrease in supply, but with accounting for increased risks.

In the 1980s, Colombia produced 80% of the world's cocaine. It was the largest producer of the drug. After decades of war on drug trafficking, it is still the largest producer of cocaine, responsible for 70% of the total. A success in reducing 10%? Not even that. The war on drugs has not slowed down global cocaine production, it has only decentralized it. Now Colombia has to compete with other large producing centers, especially Mexico, where part of the production has moved, as the repression intensified against the Colombian cartels in Medellín and Cali, starting in the 1980s.

UN reports from the 2000s already showed that drug production and consumption increase with each passing year. But, after so many deaths and counterproductive results, in the 2000s Colombia still spent 3% of GDP on its Ministry of Defense,[2] charged with financing and executing the war on drugs. The United States, since starting a war whose bodies fall outside its borders, has already spent more than 1 trillion dollars. It's a lot of money to increase the problem you want to reduce. It's irrational.

we made a mistake

The height of this war was in the 1990s. Bill Clinton was the president of the United States; Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), in Brazil; César Gaviria, Colombia. In 2011, in the documentary breaking taboo, one word is present, implicitly or explicitly, in the testimony of all of them: “We made a mistake”.

Fernando Henrique, the main character of the documentary, admits to having made a mistake in his anti-drugs policy and attributes the error above all to his own lack of information and awareness of the complexity of the problem. Bill Clinton also clearly says, “I was wrong”. His confession is even more poignant because, revealing that at the time he had a brother who was addicted to cocaine, he admits that his administration was against not only the medicinal use of marijuana, but also the distribution of disposable syringes, in order to “not send the wrong message”. that the government was encouraging drug use.[3] At that time, many injecting drug addicts were becoming infected with the AIDS virus, HIV.

It's really amazing how a consensus around a vision of drugs as something demonic can blind even great political leaders. Faith, after all, is blind – there is something religious about it. The Catholic Church was also initially against the distribution of condoms to curb the spread of HIV, fearing that this would "send the wrong message" that the Church was in favor of free sexual relations outside of holy matrimony.

César Gaviria, in turn, reveals in the documentary how much the war on drugs in Colombia not only did not solve, but increased the problem: “Fumigation destroys crops and food. This type of destruction of plantations is very traumatic for Colombian society. When Plan Colombia started, there were coca plantations in eight states. Today there are 24 or 28 states, something like that. More than tripled.” And, still, it caused damage to the environment… In other words, “I made a mistake” – and we continue to make mistakes.

A former Republican Party deputy, Jim Kolbe, also recognizes, in the documentary, the failure of the confrontation. “The war on drugs is a failure,” he says. But even before these public recognitions that attest to the failure of public drug policies in the 1990s, the war on drugs was already a fiasco, as it always was. In the same documentary, another former president, Jimmy Carter, who governed the United States between 1977 and 1980, recognizes the waste and ineffectiveness of the war on drugs: “There was an enormous waste of money and billions of dollars were spent without great returns. In most cases, the initiatives were inefficient”.

Incarcerate: Hell on the Inside

One of the necessary effects of public policies to combat drugs is the increase in the prison population. In the United States, a country that for decades has financed the war on drugs inside and outside its borders, it is the largest on the planet, both in absolute and relative numbers, with almost 2 million people incarcerated (before 2009, the number was greater and has been falling since then, albeit very slowly, as a result of some initiatives to reduce the US prison population).

China is usually cited in second place, with around 1,6 million detainees. In absolute numbers, the position is justified – but in this case China is the victim of its overpopulation. If we take into account that crimes are committed in every society, China is not, proportionally, among the countries that imprison the most: the country has more than 1 billion and 400 million inhabitants, while the United States has about 330 million. The People's Republic of China, a country run by the CCP (yes, the CCP, Chinese Communist Party), therefore has a population nearly five times that of the US and holds proportionally four times less than the land of the free.

In Brazil, the prison population was 114 in 1992, when the war on drugs began in earnest. Twenty years later, the country already had 550 detainees at the end of 2012 – an increase of 480%![4] Brazil, in absolute numbers, has the third largest prison population, with around 837 inmates (2022 Infopen data).[5] But, by the same reasoning, considering that we are 211 million inhabitants, we arrest proportionally 3 times more than China.

These comparisons, incidentally, can be better visualized when comparing arrest rates per 100 inhabitants: the US has a rate of 655 per 100; in Brazil the rate is 384; in China it is 121, a rate very close to countries that are not usually considered among those that arrest the most, such as Canada (107), France (104) and Spain (124); In this regard, incidentally, China is below countries like England, which has a rate of 134 prisoners per 100 inhabitants.[6]

Prisons in Brazil, as we know, are almost all full. On average, the occupancy rate of Brazilian prisons is 200% – they have twice the number of prisoners they could have. In them, prisoners for drug trafficking account for more than 30% of this incarcerated mass. In women's prisons, the situation is even worse: 60% of the detainees were arrested for drug trafficking – most of them in flagrante delicto, just for taking “drugs” to their companions… prisoners. But we know that drugs still enter prisons – and not only in Brazil. “There is no prison in the world that does not have drugs. They all do,” said Dr. Dráuzio Varela, still in breaking taboo, for over 10 years. He served in jails for over 30 years.

But jails are not just a good place to come into contact with drugs. They are also good for contacting organized crime. The PCC (Primeiro Comando da Capital), the main criminal organization whose main source of income is drug trafficking, has only increased its power and presence in the country since it was born in 1996. And the PCC was born inside the Taubaté penitentiary, in the interior of São Paulo, as a result of a penitentiary policy that seems to be governed, above all, by a punitive morality according to which the life of prisoners in prisons has to be hell – it is as if society were saying: “Criminals are sinners and sinners must go to hell.” But making life hellish in prisons means disrespecting human rights, the Constitution and, of course, the human person himself, his dignity.

A good part of those arrested for drug trafficking are caught carrying a small amount of drugs. The Drug Law of 2006 sought to establish a difference between user and dealer, in order to criminalize and penalize both differently – for the dealer, heavy penalties, such as a few years in prison in a penitentiary; users, lighter penalties, such as socio-educational measures, provision of services to society or a simple warning. The problem is that the law does not make the distinction between drug dealer and user objectively clear, because it does not define the quantity and quality of the drug carried that characterize one and the other. If a user is caught with a certain amount and variety of drugs, he may be accused of trafficking – and depending on the police investigation, as well as the judge, he may be indicted and convicted as a drug dealer.

Many are held in pre-trial detention and often wait for more than a year for their trial. There are almost 235 people in this condition in Brazil, and recent research estimates that almost 40% of them are considered innocent at the end of the trial – around 95 people are in prison and shouldn't be there! It is not just deprivation of liberty that they suffer. In most prisons, it is also human dignity that they often lose, because conditions in Brazilian prisons are often the place where human rights are most disrespected.

Poor and black: hell outside

The mass incarceration of many drug users and petty drug traffickers does not just create hell inside prisons. Outside, the poorest and black population of the periphery and favelas suffer the most direct effects of the war. On May 18, 2020, for example – but it is just one example, among many others – we saw what happened: a teenager was killed by special forces from the Federal Police and the Civil Police, in one of the favelas of Complexo do Salgueiro , in São Gonçalo, a municipality located 22 km from the capital of Rio de Janeiro.

João Pedro Mattos Pinto was only 14 years old, he was evangelical, like many in his neighborhood, and he was at home with his parents. He studied, played video games, like many his age. Police forces entered the favela with a search warrant against local drug lords. In the police version, they were received with grenades by the traffickers' security guards, who ran through the precarious housing in the favela, as is usual in these situations, and the bandits would have entered João Pedro's house. “The police arrived there in a cruel way, shooting, throwing grenades, without asking who it was”, said the boy's father. When they saw that João Pedro was shot, the police activated the helicopter and took João Pedro away. They didn't say where they were going. The relatives spent 17 hours without knowing where and how João was. A cousin used social media to try to get information about João. That night, the case reverberated on Twitter, including profiles of celebrities. The following morning, a Tuesday, the police informed the family about how and where João was: dead, at the IML in Tribobó.

Examples such as João Pedro's abound. It is the bodies that fall in war. Three days before the repercussions of his case, police officers from the BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) entered one of the favelas in Complexo do Alemão, located in the northern part of the city of Rio de Janeiro. After an anonymous tip, they wanted to seize eight rifles belonging to drug traffickers. Six men were killed in the same place. Residents suspected that there would have been an execution – a massacre. Another seven suspected drug traffickers, including a local chief, were killed in the confrontation or on the way to hospital. A public note from the State Military Police stated that the police officers had been received with gunshots and grenades by the traffickers – and admitted that “only” ten young people were killed, of which five would be drug trafficking criminals. In that operation, according to the statement, the police seized some drugs, 85 grenades and eight rifles. It doesn't say that when the police left, they left behind a trail of 13 dead people.

The noise of shots, the sound of machine guns, the explosions of grenades, the bodies falling to the ground – for the black and poor population of the favelas and periphery, drug wars is not a metaphor, it is really a war. And a war without truce: when these cases and several others occurred, in that month of May 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, the country was beginning to enter its first peak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, with almost 300 thousand cases and 20 deaths from the disease – even with underreporting, Brazil was already the second country with the highest number of deaths, behind only the United States. And the numbers only increased. Even so, the then governor of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, and the Federal Police did not interrupt their war operations.

On May 20, in Cidade de Deus, a neighborhood on the west side of the city of Rio de Janeiro, another 18-year-old youth was also killed by the police. Journalist Fernando Brito wrote: “Another black boy was killed in an unjustifiable police action, in the midst of the terror of a pandemic: a warlike invasion of Cidade de Deus, just as basic food baskets were being distributed to those people abandoned by everyone.”[7]

The STF even banned operations to combat drug trafficking in the favelas during the pandemic period. Initially, on June 5, 2020, the decision was taken on a preliminary basis, by Minister Edson Fachin; it was later confirmed by the plenary on 5 August. However, the decision left open the possibility of carrying out operations in “absolutely exceptional” cases, provided that they were “duly justified” and taking due and necessary health care due to the pandemic. Perhaps based on this legal loophole, police operations continued to be carried out, in disrespect for the Supreme Court's decision. More deaths and arrests occurred. One of these police operations, it is worth remembering, left 28 dead in the Jacarezinho favela, on May 6, 2021, in what was considered the most lethal of police operations in Rio de Janeiro.

In your History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides narrates the afflictions of the population of Athens, hit in 430 BC by an epidemic (smallpox or typhus, according to scholars) that would have come from Ethiopia. At that time, the Greeks of the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, decided to call a truce and stop the war. They could have taken advantage of the weakness of the Athenians because of the epidemic. But perhaps they were more humane, sensitive and civilized than police corporations, governors and presidents of the Brazilian extreme right of the second decade of the XNUMXst century...

* Marcos Ferreira de Paula Professor of the Social Work Course at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).


[1] The statement was made in an interview with BBC News Brasil. “Lula’s minister wants debate on drug decriminalization to reduce prison population”, Leandro Prazeres, BBC News Brasil, Brasília, March 7, 2023.

[2] VALENCIA, Leon. Drugs, conflict and the US. Colombia at the beginning of the century. São Paulo. Magazine ADVANCED STUDIES, vol. 19, no. 55, Sep./Dec. 2005.

[3] BURGIERMAN, Denis R. The End of the War: Marijuana and the Creation of a New System for Dealing with Drug Abuse. São Paulo: Leya, 2011.

[4]WASSERMANN, Roberio. BBC Brazil in London. “Number of prisoners explodes in Brazil and generates overcrowding in prisons”. BBC Brazil in London, 28-12-2012.

[5] The information is from the CNJ Prison Monitoring Bank (National Council of Justice), update of 2022.

[6]Except for the rate referring to Brazil (see previous footnote), the data are from the WPB – World Prison Brief, from the University of London:

[7]BRITO, Fernando. São Paulo. Journal of the Center of the World.

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