Press Release: Count the Costs project launch event at UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs

Fifty Years of the War on Drugs: Time to Count the Costs and Explore the Alternatives

The War on Drugs - Count the Costs global campaign will be launched by NGOs from around the world at a side-event at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna:

When: Wednesday 23 March, 13.15 – 14.45

Where: Mozart Room, Vienna International Conference Centre, Vienna

Speakers will outline the many costs of the war on drugs, and the aims of the campaign, to an audience of international policy makers, NGO representatives, and media. See for more details

The War on Drugs: Count the Costs campaign will bring together interested parties from around the world, including NGOs, policy makers and others whose work is negatively impacted by international drug enforcement. Together they will call on governments and international agencies to meaningfully evaluate the unintended consequences of the war on drugs and explore evidence-based alternatives. The results of this campaign will be presented to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in 2012.  Here is the full text of the call:

The War on Drugs - Count the Costs and Explore the Alternatives

The global 'war on drugs' has been fought for 50 years, without preventing the long-term trend of increasing drug supply and use. Beyond this failure, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has also identified the many serious ‘unintended negative consequences’ of the drug war. These costs result not from drug use itself, but from choosing a punitive enforcement-led approach that, by its nature, places control of the trade in the hands of organised crime, and criminalises many users. In the process this:

1.    Undermines international development and security, and fuels conflict

2.    Threatens public health, spreads disease and causes death

3.    Undermines human rights

4.    Promotes stigma and discrimination

5.    Creates crime and enriches criminals

6.    Causes deforestation and pollution

7.    Wastes billions on ineffective law enforcement

The 'war on drugs' is a policy choice. There are other options that, at the very least, should be debated and explored using the best possible evidence and analysis.

We all share the same goals – a safer, healthier and more just world.  

Therefore, we the undersigned, call upon world leaders and UN agencies to quantify the unintended negative consequences of the current approach to drugs, and assess the potential costs and benefits of alternative approaches.

Martin Powell, Co-ordinator of the Count the Costs campaign said:

“In 1961 UN member states gathered to sign the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the legal cornerstone of the enforcement-led approach that has become known as the global war on drugs. Fifty years later, with literally trillions of dollars spent, illegal drugs are one of the largest commodity trades on earth. Even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime that oversees the global drug control system, concedes that drug enforcement efforts have fuelled the creation of a vast criminal market with disastrous negative unintended consequences.

Yet no government or UN body has ever quantified these negative costs, or meaningfully explored alternatives to the war on drugs. After half a century this is long overdue. Only by looking at the evidence of what has worked and what has not can we hope to move towards a global drug control system that is, as the UNODC has suggested ‘fit for purpose’.” 

The Count the Costs call mirrors numerous comments made by world leaders, concerning the need to evaluate the costs and benefits of various policy regimes including President Santos of Colombia, Washington Post, Dec 2010:

“There are some fundamental structural contradictions in this war on drugs . . . We in Colombia have been successful, but our success is hurting the whole of Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa, and eventually it will backfire on us again. So are we pursuing the correct long-term policy? I don't object to discussing any alternatives but if we are going to discuss alternatives, let's discuss every alternative… what is the cost, what is the benefit of each alternative?” 


The War on Drugs: Count the Costs campaign launch is backed by: International Drug Policy Consortium; International Harm Reduction Association; Eurasian Harm Reduction Network; Drug Policy Alliance (US); Espolea (Mexico); Release (UK); Transform Drug Policy Foundation (UK); Hungarian Civil Liberties Union; CuPIHD (Mexico); Transnational Institute (Netherlands); International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (Canada); New Zealand Drug Policy Foundation; Washington Office on Latin America.



Martin Powell, Count the Costs Project Coordinator

+44 (0)7875 679301

Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst, Transform Drug Policy Foundation

+44 (0)7980 213943

Simona Merkinaite, Program Officer, Eurasian Harm Reduction Network


+370 68254401

Notes for Editors

1. War on Drugs - Count the Costs launch event:

Where: Mozart Room, Vienna International Conference Centre, Vienna

When: Wednesday 23 March, 13.15 – 14.45


Simona Merkinaite: Policy and Advocacy Program Officer, Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (Lithuania) - The health and human rights impacts of drug law enforcement in the Eurasian regions

Aram Barra: Drug Policy Programme Director, Espolea (Mexico) - Counting the costs of Mexico’s 'war on drugs'

Damon Barrett: Senior Human Rights Analyst, International Harm Reduction Association (UK) - Drugs and human rights: is drug law enforcement proportionate? The case for Impact Assessment

Chair: Martin Powell: Count the Costs Project Coordinator, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (UK)

For more information visit:

2. The unintended consequences of the war on drugs were outlined by then Executive Director of UN Office on Drugs and Crime Antonio Maria Costa in "Making drug control 'fit for purpose': Building on the UNGASS decade" UNODC, 2008, p10:

“The first unintended consequence is a huge criminal black market that thrives in order to get prohibited substances from producers to consumers…

The second unintended consequence is what one might call policy displacement. The expanding criminal black market obviously demanded a commensurate law enforcement response, and more resources. The consequence was that public health was displaced into the background, more honoured in lip service and rhetoric, but less in actual practice…

The third unintended consequence is geographical displacement.  It is often called the balloon effect because squeezing (by tighter controls) one place produces a swelling (namely, an increase) in another place…

The fourth unintended consequence is what one might call substance displacement. If the use of one drug was controlled, by reducing either supply or demand, suppliers and users moved on to another drug with similar psychoactive effects.

The fifth unintended consequence is the way we perceive and deal with the users of illicit drugs. A system appears to have been created in which those who fall into the web of addiction find  themselves excluded and marginalized from the social  mainstream, tainted with a moral stigma, and often unable to find treatment even when they may be motivated to want it.”


With all the shortcomings and failures of our international drug policy so evident it is easy to overlook change in institutional and political thinking where and when it does occur.

When New Zealand adopted the 1961 Single Convention standards and hastily ratifying these into law in 1975 it has subsequently been held to account by a legion of powerful vested interests (read: USA). Despite concerns expressed by the Minister of Health at the time, "giving Police powers to which they are not entitled" NZ created a USA model centred on all drug use is misuse to be punished criminally under the aegis of protecting health and under the warrant of the Minister of Health.

Then last week the Heath Minister responsible for drug policy oversight did something radical. He authorised the inclusion of 'synthetic cannabis' into a extended classification making provision for use of drugs by adults - significantly changing the rules of the game. (note: and UN Convention compliant)

USE of recreational 'soft' drugs with provision for labelling, storage, manufacture, advertising, and sale!.

This should be cause for celebration within the reform movement globally as it sets a new benchmark in evidence based policy formulation and legislation.

see http:/ search for 'restricted substanced regulations' and prepare to be amazed by the simplicity and fit for purpose regulatory model that respects the right to possess and thus the right to trade, store and manufacture.

Way cool.....