Taking The ‘War’ Out Of The War On Drugs


The global drug trade is widespread, profitable, and insidious, creeping into all four corners of the world. While traditional international conflicts still linger and bubble away over fault lines and flashpoints, the drug trade seems to demand a wholly different response. Indeed, Richard Nixon expressed the current and unchanged state of affairs in 1972 when he announced what has now become an international war on drugs by stating: “the only way to fight this menace is by attacking it on many fronts.” Using Nixon’s language, this campaign has shifted and morphed into nothing short of a global civil conflict, pitting humanity against itself.

Warfare is no longer just a physical practice, the exercise of politics through other means, and the matching of military strength on the battlefield. In the modern world, where communication is paramount and messaging defines whether or not international and domestic communities accept state action, the very language of war is seeping out of the realm of foreign affairs and into other previously uninvolved areas.

Academically, this process is known as securitization. Developed by the Copenhagen School, securitization is the process whereby speech turns particular objects – nominally neutral and not loaded with social value – into almost sentient subjects that pose an existential threat to society. Securitization renders certain political and legislative decisions far more likely, and creates new enemies within a society that must be eliminated or neutralized to return to a state of total security. While the intentions may be positive, the repercussions are almost invariably serious and long-lasting.

So it is with the so-called war on drugs. A classic example of securitization, Nixon’s formulation borrowed from his predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, and has remained a constant struggle for the United States and other governments ever since. While the global drug trade already disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, the securitized response only serves to harm these communities even more. Securitization of the drug debate has manifested as a militarized response to drug use. Additionally, the drug war has continually involved the unwitting targeting of racial minorities. In the United States, members of minority communities are far more likely to be convicted of crimes relating to possession and dealing of illegal substances than white populations. Considering that rates of consumption are nominally the same, this approach to the drug problem is seriously lacking. Further, the measures that police departments take to conduct the war on drugs are polarizing and further deepen the distrust that these minority communities may express for law enforcement officials. Although the drug problem demands increased trust, domestic police departments are receiving surplus military material through programs like the United States’ Federal 1033 Program, further increasing the distance between communities and officers. The war on drugs focuses excessively on the notion of narcotics as an existential threat, without a nuanced perspective on the factors that drive individuals to drug use, not to mention the various sophisticated methods employed by drug suppliers and those who take advantage of addicts.

The drug war is not confined to the United States as well. The web of the global drug trade has no centre, stretching beyond borders to all manner of countries. Australia is facing a confluence of epidemics, as methamphetamines ravage rural communities while heroin persists in urban governments. In other countries, the securitization of the drug issue comes full circle; Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, was swept into power on the back of a populist campaign to crack down on drug users. According to Human Rights Watch, his empowerment of the Philippines’ police force to take lethal action against suspected drug users has led to the extrajudicial killing of at least 12,000 people, largely members of vulnerable urban populations living in poverty.

Just as the war on drugs marginalizes drug users, portraying them as deviants, it has also provided a source of revenue for cash-strapped ‘deviant’ states or organizations. Colombia’s revolutionary opposition during its civil war was animated for half a century by its involvement with cocaine production; the Taliban in Afghanistan’s tribal areas receive significant amounts of revenue from producing opium poppies; and the North Korean government actively encourages the industrial-scale production and export of illegal narcotics in order to fund its nuclear program.

The war on drugs has spread from its legislative and discursive beginnings in the United States. While its intentions are noble, the manner in which it has manifested indicates that governments are missing the forest for the trees. An outsized focus on public drug users, which inevitably targets vulnerable minority populations already struggling with systematized oppression, fails to grasp the dynamics which both draw people to drugs and perpetuate the global drug trade. A new approach is necessary.

The militarization and securitization of the drug issue is notable as a particularly persistent speech act, with lingering consequences that have festered since 1972. Considering that this is not working, it is necessary to restructure this speech act. The international drug trade is an exceptionally difficult problem to solve, and focusing on drug users at the bottom of the chain has repeatedly proved insufficient. Taking a macroscopic approach to these individuals will make visible the system that renders them vulnerable to drug addiction. Essentially, the drug problem needs to be, in some aspects, desecuritized. Restructuring the perceptions that society has of drug users, from deviants beyond hope to victims in serious need of public healthcare, is a vital first step in this process. This will have another positive consequence: freeing law enforcement resources to focus on the supply chain of the drug trade, and disrupt the tendrils before they have the chance to exploit more people. Portugal offers the most radical example of this approach. In 2001, all drugs were decriminalized, including highly dangerous and addictive substances like heroin. While this action is extreme, and may be difficult to justify in other contexts, it has achieved results; Portugal’s mortality rate from drug-related overdoses is the lowest in Western Europe.

While the extreme desecuritization of the drug problem may only be achievable in a country like Portugal, the Iberian nation’s example certainly offers lessons to the rest of the world. First and foremost, strict policing of low-level possession may not necessarily hold the most successful solutions to the problems posed by the global drug trade. Instead, a mature and potentially difficult conversation in the public sphere about the factors that make certain groups vulnerable to drug addiction is necessary. If the state can provide greater measures of economic security to vulnerable populations, and take a nuanced approach to the impacts of systematized poverty and its attendant difficulties, that is a good start. In turn, it can also use its resources to defang and weaken the syndicates that benefit from the exploitation of vulnerable people. That is, after all, the duty of a government: to protect and empower its people.

Patrick Cain

Government and International Relations Student at the University of Sydney. Interested in the political and social repercussions of climate change, and how to tackle these challenges. Contributing to the OWP as a correspondent in Australia.
Patrick Cain

About Patrick Cain

Government and International Relations Student at the University of Sydney. Interested in the political and social repercussions of climate change, and how to tackle these challenges. Contributing to the OWP as a correspondent in Australia.