Count the Costs briefing for the UN Correspondents Association

About Count the Costs
Count the Costs is a global initiative, supported by more than 100 NGOs worldwide, which calls on world leaders and UN agencies to quantify the unintended negative costs of the current approach to drugs, and explore alternative approaches. Its supporters include Human Rights Watch, the International Aids Society, Médecins du Monde, the UK Prison Governors Association, and several drug treatment organisations.

A range of current and former UN officials, including Ban Ki-moon, Kofi Annan, special rapporteur on the right to health Anand Grover and head of UNDP Helen Clark, have all publicly voiced their support for alternatives to the war on drugs.

A failure on its own terms

  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime – the agency charged with enforcing the war on drugs worldwide – has itself acknowledged that the current approach generates “unintended consequences”, which are:
    • The creation of a lucrative and violent illicit drug market
    • The redirection of scarce resources from proven health interventions to punitive law enforcement
    • The “balloon effect”, whereby enforcement efforts in one area simply displace drug production and/or drug markets to another area, rather than eliminating them
    • The displacement of drug consumption from one substance to another, sometimes more risky alternative
    • The stigmatization and marginalization of people who use drugs, which in turn reduces their likelihood of receiving treatment when they need it
  • The war on drugs has failed to eliminate – or even reduce – drug use around the world. Globally, between 1998 and 2008, there was a 34.5% increase in opiate use, a 27% increase in cocaine use, and an 8.5% increase in cannabis use
  • Global illicit opium production has increased by more than 380% since 1980, rising from 1,000 metric tons to over 4,000 today
  • Meanwhile, heroin prices in Europe have fallen by 75% since 1990, and by 80% in the US since 1980, even as purity has risen

Undermining human rights, fostering discrimination

  • Despite using drugs at approximately the same rate as white people, black people in the US are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned for a drug offence
  • In China and South East Asia, around 235,000 people are held in mandatory “drug detention” centers, where they are often beaten, sexually assaulted, refused access to healthcare, and forced to participate in unpaid labor
  • In the US, black people comprise 13% of the US population, yet account for over 30% of those arrested on drug charges, and more than 40% of those incarcerated in state or federal prison for drug law violations
  • The number of people imprisoned for drug offences in the US has risen from approximately 38,000 to more than 500,000 in the last four decades

Fuelling conflict and insecurity

  • Since the war on drugs was scaled-up in Mexico in 2006, more than 100,000 people have been killed in violence related to the illegal drug trade
  • Despite the US spending $7.6 billion on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2001, the country saw record levels of opium poppy production in 2014

Wasting billions, undermining economies

  • Globally, in excess of $100 billion is spent every year fighting the war on drugs. To put this into context, the entire global aid budget is $130 billion
  • Drug money corrupts legal financial institutions. In 2012, the bank HSBC was made to pay a record $1.9 billion fine for laundering at least $881 million of Mexican drug traffickers’ money. And in 2010, regulators found that the US bank Wachovia failed to apply proper anti-money laundering controls to transfers totaling $378.4 billion made by Mexican cartels

Fuelling crime and enriching criminals

  • The war on drugs has created an illegal trade with an annual turnover of $320 billion, a figure which dwarfs the GDP of many countries
  • Prohibition dramatically inflates the price of drugs, providing a vast, untaxed income stream to organised criminals. It has been estimated that there is a 16,000% mark-up on the price of heroin and cocaine
  • Although the conventional wisdom is that increasing drug law enforcement will reduce violence, a systematic review of all existing research into this issue found that prohibition and the war on drugs actually fuel drug-market violence and higher rates of homicide, by destabilizing the trade and creating opportunities for new gangs to claim a share of the market

Threatening public health and safety

  • In 2010, there were more than 20,000 illicit-drug overdose deaths in the US
  • Injecting drug use causes 1 in 10 new HIV infections globally, and up to 90% of infections in Eastern Europe and Central Asia
  • Illegal, underground drug production leads to the sale of adulterated substances of unknown strength and purity. Batches of heroin have been found to contain anthrax, and there are examples of cocaine being cut with levamisole, a de-worming agent
  • UNAIDS has estimated that $3.2 billion is required for effective harm reduction measures, but only a fraction of this amount – $160 million – is actually spent
  • The war on drugs has resulted in unduly restrictive regulations and policies that mean over 5.5 billion people have limited or no access to opiate-based medicines for pain control

Undermining development

  • Over a quarter of all cocaine consumed in Europe in 2007 was transited through West Africa, and Guinea-Bissau has become a narco-state in just five years, with the value of the drugs trade now much greater than its national income

The environment

  • In one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, Colombia, approximately 2.6 million acres of land were aerially sprayed with toxic chemicals as part of drug crop eradication efforts between 2001 and 2007. Despite this, the number of locations used for illicit coca cultivation increased during this period
  • Significant areas of US national parks in California, Texas and Arkansas have been taken over by Mexican drug cartels growing cannabis


  • Alternatives to the war on drugs (including decriminalization and legalization) have been in operation in various places around the world for some time, and are increasingly being rolled out
  • Uruguay has become the first UN member state to legalize and regulate cannabis nationwide
  • 4 US states and the nation’s capital have now legalized cannabis for recreational use: Washington, Colorado, Alaska, Oregon and Washington DC
  • In October 2014 Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield called for "flexible" interpretations of international drug control treaties at the United Nations in New York City last week, citing cannabis legalization in Colorado and Washington:

"How could I, a representative of the government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalization of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?"

However, the White House is staunchly opposed to revising the UN drug treaties, as shown in a September memo from President Barack Obama.

References are available on request. Please contact George Murkin at