Creating crime, enriching criminals

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Far from eliminating drug use and the illicit trade, prohibition has inadvertently fuelled the development of the world’s largest illegal commodities market, estimated by the UN in 2005 to turn over more than $300 billion a year. Just as with US alcohol prohibition in the early 20th century, the profits flow untaxed into the hands of unregulated, often violent, criminal profiteers.

The negative consequences can be felt from the producer countries, where drug money fuels instability, conflict and corruption, through to the streets of Western consumer countries, which are blighted by warring drug gangs, street violence and high volumes of property crime committed by low-income, dependent users. This is over and above the criminalisation of hundreds of millions of consenting, non-violent adult drug users.

The trade is additionally undermining the international financial system through money laundering and placing an intolerable burden on overstretched criminal justice systems and overflowing prisons across the world.

  • The UK government has estimated that over 50% of property crime is committed by dependent heroin and cocaine users to fund their habits(1)
  • In 1989, Forbes magazine listed Colombian cocaine dealer Pablo Escobar as the seventh richest man on earth, with a personal fortune of over $9 billion
  • The UN estimates that there are currently over 200 million illegal drug users,(2) most criminalised purely because of their use

"The control system and its application have [created] a huge criminal black market ... There is no shortage of criminals competing to claw out a share of a market in which hundred fold increases in price from production to retail are not uncommon."

– Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 2008.

(1) UK Prime Minister's No. 10 Strategy Unit, 'Drugs report phase 1 - Understanding the issues', 2003, p.25.

(2) Costa, A.M., 'Making drug control "fit for purpose": Building on the UNGASS decade', UNODC, 2008.