Key takeaways from The Lancet’s report on drug policy

The Lancet, one of the foremost medical journals in the world, released a report that outlined various ways in which the prohibition has failed

In March, The Lancet, one of the foremost medical journals in the world, released a report that outlined various ways in which the current prohibition model and the broader War on Drugs have failed. Using decades of findings from researchers, frontline healthcare workers, economists, and NGOs, the Public health and international drug policy (2016) report challenged the United Nations' global approach to drug policy.

The report called on policymakers to create real and lasting reform that will help those affected by the War on Drugs. It suggests that a new policy be based on evidence rather than ideology.

Lancet’s report

The report's core findings indicate that the current strategies which were meant to deter the use of narcotics as well as prevent addiction and disease have instead had the opposite effect.

Effects of current drug policy

The War on Drugs has helped to create an underground economy controlled by criminals, who prey on at-risk individuals and engage in violent behaviour to defend territory and trade. This has led to thousands of people being caught in the crossfire. Prohibition has also left most users with limited access to safe spaces and paraphernalia, which has led to increasing exposure to physical violence and disease.

The majority of those who are at risk are ethnic minorities, women, and those from  impoverished backgrounds. They are often targeted by law enforcement and incarcerated for nonviolent possession-related offences. These individuals lack proper healthcare and drug-related programs in their communities and, behind bars, this makes them more likely to contract infectious diseases like HIV and Hepatitis.

Global problems

However, it's not just those who have been incarcerated who are affected by the War on Drugs. Many people in prime growing regions throughout Asia and the Americas have suffered from health problems, including respiratory ailments and skin disorders, due to indiscriminate spraying of chemical defoliants. This has caused many people to flee their homes, putting them at increased risk for poverty.

What’s more, the War on Drugs has in fact turned into an actual war, leading to the militarization of police forces and criminal organizations around the world. Violence in Mexico as well as an unprecedented increase in homicide rates in countries during peacetime are among the many direct results of prohibition efforts.


Because so many of the detrimental effects of drug use are directly related to prohibition and enforcement, The Lancet has urged policy makers to place decriminalization at the centre of a new strategy while shifting enforcement to rehabilitation and education.

Countries like Portugal and the Czech Republic have been successful in these efforts. Decriminalizing would not only prevent the use of existing laws as "weapons" to target racial minorities but it would also free up valuable resources that are otherwise being wasted.

The report also suggests that harm reduction strategies like those championed in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside should serve as the core pillars of any drug policy. These programs have proven to save lives while decreasing the transmission of dangerous and preventable diseases such as HIV and HCV, which leads to less reliance on the health care system as a whole.

The report urges governments to shift their efforts away from the current heavy-handed model and to build strategies that reinforce public health and safety for the benefit of the most marginalized citizens.

Photo: Frontpage /

In this article

Join the Conversation