The World Health Organization Documents Failure of U.S. Drug Policies


By Bruce Mirken | The United States has some of the world’s most punitive drug policies and has led the cheering section for tough “war on drugs” policies worldwide, but a new international study suggests that those policies have been a crashing failure. A World Health Organization survey of 17 countries, conducted by some of the world’s leading substance abuse researchers, found that we have the highest rates of marijuana and cocaine use.

The numbers are startling. In the United States, 42.4 percent admitted having used marijuana. The only other nation that came close was New Zealand, another bastion of get-tough policies, at 41.9 percent. No one else was even close. The results for cocaine use were similar, with the United States leading the world by a large margin.

This study is important because it’s the first time a respected international group has surveyed drug use around the world, using the same questions and procedure everywhere. While many countries have their own drug use surveys, the questions and methodology vary, and comparisons between countries are difficult. This new study eliminates that problem.

Some of the most striking numbers are from the Netherlands, where adults are permitted to possess a small of marijuana and purchase it from regulated businesses. Some U.S. officials have claimed that these Dutch policies have created some sort of decadent cesspool of drug abuse, but the new study demolishes such assertions: In the Netherlands, only 19.8 percent have used marijuana, less than half the U.S. figure.

Even more striking is what the researchers found when they asked young adults when they had started using marijuana. Again, the United States led the world, with 20.2 percent trying marijuana by age 15. No other country was even close, and in the Netherlands, just 7 percent used marijuana by 15 — roughly one-third of the U.S. figure.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy tried to dismiss the study, Bloomberg News reported:


Trying to find a link between drug use and drug enforcement doesn’t make sense, said Tom Riley, spokesman for the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington. “The U.S. has high crime rates but we spend a lot on law enforcement and prison,” Riley said yesterday in a telephone interview. “Should we spend less? We’re just a different kind of country. We have higher drug use rates, a higher crime rate, many things that go with a highly free and mobile society.”


Funny, ONDCP takes precisely the opposite line whenever a state considers liberalizing its marijuana laws. In a March press release, deputy Drug Czar Scott Burns railed against a New Hampshire proposal to decriminalize marijuana, saying such a move “sends the wrong message to New Hampshire’s youth, students, parents, public health officials and the law enforcement community,” and would lead to “more drugs, drug users and drug dealers on their streets and communities.”

Back in 2002, denouncing a proposed marijuana law reform in Nevada, ONDCP distributed a list of talking points to prosecutors specifically slamming the “extremely dubious” Dutch system of regulated sales, saying, “Increased availability of marijuana leads to increased use of marijuana and other drugs.”

In fact, ONCDP’s latest excuse for the failure of U.S. drug policies — that enforcement and penalties don’t really have much effect on rates of use — is probably just about right. But it also dynamites any justification for our current marijuana laws. The WHO researchers put it this way:

“The U.S., which has been driving much of the world’s drug research and drug policy agenda, stands out with higher levels of use of alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis, despite punitive illegal drug policies. … The Netherlands, with a less criminally punitive approach to cannabis use than the US, has experienced lower levels of use, particularly among younger adults. Clearly, by itself, a punitive policy towards possession and use accounts for limited variation in nation level rates of illegal drug use.”

For this we arrest 830,000 Americans a year on marijuana charges?

  • Victor Hansens

    Trying to find a link between drug use and drug enforcement doesn’t make sense, said Tom Riley, spokesman for the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

    Why doesn't it make sense??

    “The U.S. has high crime rates but we spend a lot on law enforcement and prison,” Riley said yesterday in a telephone interview. “Should we spend less?

    Yes we should spend less.

    We’re just a different kind of country. We have higher drug use rates, a higher crime rate, many things that go with a highly free and mobile society.”

    What? Having a 'free and mobile society' has to have higher crime rates, higher drug use rates?? What would our 'crime rate' be if 800,000 arrests went away and millions of man hours of Law Enforcements time went to other activities. A 'free and mobile society' requires sensible policy about drugs and there use, starting with the "Classification" of drugs, and continuing with the educaion of what are 'drugs'. The 'legal' prescription drugs are the drug problem. According to Phillip Emafo, International Narcotics Control Board President, " The very high potency of some of the synthetic narcotic drugs available as prescription drugs presents, in fact, a higher overdose risk than the abuse of illicit drugs."

    The article points out that while the number of young people abusing illicit drugs in the US has gone down the number of Americans abusing prescription drugs nearly doubled from 7.8 million in 1992 to more than 15.1 million in 2003. Those drugs kill people. And all you have to do is go to a Doctor and explain the 'pain' you are in because of (insert your story here) and they can prescribe just about anything you want, the insurance company pays for it, you can still keep your job even though it may be addictive.

    The FDA is in a complete shambles, no wy they can do what they are supposed to and the difference is you are part of the drug companies not the 'Drug Cartels' that are destroying our youth.

    The economy of the world seems to be in a hurt, yet the advertising budget for legal drugs "hit a record $4.8 billion in 2006, up from $2.6 billion in 2002." Health Care isn't health care, its a legal drug dispensory. We have television ads that give us an 'atta boy' for knowing how many prescriptions we take and finding out that little pink pill has a name. According to an article published in the USA Today, Thursday, January 10, 2008, "About 3.1 million people in the USA ages 12 to 25 have used cough and cold medicine to get high, the government reported Wednesday".

    If there are 300million in the US then that is 1% of the population and according to LEAP 1.2% of the population is addicted to these other illicit drugs, that is for all age groups not just the 12 to 25 year olds. We have drug store clerks checking id's to sell you cold medicine becasue its used to make 'meth'.

    My 27 year old nephew died when I was 54. The autopsy proved it was from an overdose of pain killers, 'legal' prescription drugs are killing our young people. We need to 'Change the Mind Set', good drugs, bad drugs. It needs to be based on reality.

    I guess he is right after all, trying to find a link between drug use and drug enforcement, under the current system doesn't make any sense……but it should. I think he is missing the point?? VV

  • David Raynes

    The US has strong anti-drug policies it also has the strongest and best funded drug legalization lobby groups in the world. Any connection? The Dutch sitaution is not a success, it has given the Netherlands a third world drug traficking, drug crime, drug warehousing and manufacturing problem with astonishing levels of criminality. It has managed to get to this point while being a small first world economy. we have a model for legal drugs in tobacco & alcohol, both hugely harmful. In societies where alcohol is less used because of religious or social taboo, there is much less harm. Less use=less harm, very simple. It applies to all drugs and use reinforcing substances, legal or ilegal.

    • Bodipoky

      You’re not very well informed.  Do some research before you start throwing wild suppositions as to less use = less harm, and I would like to know your source of the “facts” of the criminal problem in the Netherlands.  In other words, make an intelligent argument or don’t make one at all. I’ve seen figures from multiple data gathering organizations working independently.  Generally, and you can check my figures on line, hundreds of thousands deaths a year from tobacco use, I think about 100,000 deaths a year from alcohol related illness, tens of thousands a year from prescription drugs, many of which are legitimately attained and properly used.  Now, I haven’t looked at those figures for a month or so, so don’t split hairs. These figures are very close to the actual data.  The death rate from “hard drugs” ( cocaine, heroin, meth, etc….)  is about ten thousand. (spelled it so you wouldn’t think I dropped a few zeroes.) Deaths from marijuana?  NEVER EVER A REPORTED CASE!!!!!  So, I hope you understand the reason I felt it necessary to call you out on your post.  We’ve ALL been fed a load of crap for decades which has instilled unjustified, sensationalized fear.  Drugs aren’t the problem.  The way our country addresses social issues is. It’s time to wake up and realize the drug policies in this country are not only creating an atmosphere for black market in the U.S., it is BACKED an SUPPORTED by the major drug cartels.  We’re their cash cow. As far as gateway drug status of marijuana.  Think.  Where do people have to go? It’s EXACTLY the same as going in for cheap transportation and being sold on a gas guzzling SUV cause it’s “bigger, better, and you need it.”  Drug dealer’s are just salesmen.  They’re going to sell the most profitable product and sell it hard.  Kids are being told Marijuana is just as dangerous, deadly, etc… as these other drugs, they WILL try it, at some point.  When they realize that it gives you an effect which is less severe than drinking, they’re going to think, “They lied about that, maybe they are lying about all the other drugs.  So, all this from a lowly auto mechanic.  Not a lawyer, not a politician, not an advocate, just some idiot who knows how to do better research than you.