Drug Laws and Drug Enforcement Around the World

Drug laws vary widely from country to country. Some nations embrace various elements of a harm reduction approach, in which drug laws are set and evaluated with the goal of reducing the harm of drugs and drug policies. A few legal models, such as Portugal's drug laws, are even exploring a post-prohibition approach by decriminalizing drugs. Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana in late 2013.

However, the United States and the United Nations, both of which have a great deal of influence on international drug laws, maintain a criminal justice rather than health-oriented approach. They also continue to promote ineffective eradication and interdiction policies in countries where drugs are produced. This sets the overall tone for global drug policy, so that the international community is locked into a model that promotes lucrative illicit markets dominated by organized crime.

In countries such as Mexico and Afghanistan, the shortcomings of this approach are evident.

Mexico’s drug war has turned incredibly violent in recent years, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. Law enforcement attempts to put cartels out of business by arresting key figures have led not to the demise of the drug trade, but to bloody struggles for control. With prohibition propping up drug prices, it is inevitable that the drug trade will continue, no matter how risky or violent it gets.

In Afghanistan, illicit opium production is so lucrative that establishment of a stable, non-corrupt central government is proving nearly impossible. International efforts to stop Afghan farmers from growing opium have fallen flat because the well-resourced Taliban can provide for farmers in a way the government cannot.

As the international community grapples with these issues, solutions such as marijuana legalization to reduce the violence of Mexico's drug war, legal export of Afghan opium crops for medical use, and models that follow Portugal's drug laws become increasingly credible.