How the Drug War Eats the Poor

According to a new report by the NGO Health Poverty Action, prohibition drives poverty and criminality in places like Brazil and India.
Photo: EFE News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

In New York, the trial of the cartel boss Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is entering its third month. The El Chapo story is full of million-dollar deals, outrageous prison escapes and, of course, the grotesque violence and political corruption made inevitable by the illegal drug trade.

However, the trial also points to a strange dichotomy in how we talk about the War on Drugs. When looking at the US and Europe, there is, rightly, an increasing focus on how drug prohibition disproportionally affects marginalized communities and racial minorities. Yet, when talking about drugs in the global south (i.e.: what people used to call the "Third World"), the media often fixates on slick kingpins like El Chapo and Pablo Escobar, forgetting that the vast majority of those employed and affected by the drug trade are some of the poorest people in the world.


In fact, what is becoming increasingly clear is that international drug prohibition is actually a major driver of global poverty. Last week, the NGO Health Poverty Action (HPA) released a report looking at the drug trade in Brazil and India, exploring exactly how drug gangs have taken over Brazil’s favelas [slums], and how illicit poppy production has formed an entire alternate economy in rural northern India.

"I've worked on major development campaigns for years—debt cancellation, trade justice, AIDS; all the things NGOs talk about. But most of those movements, while doing a lot of good, were campaigns devised in the global north, then exported," says HPA's CEO, Martin Drewry. "Then a group of very senior Latin American political leaders came to London and completely turned things on their head. Their priority was fighting to end drug prohibition—as an issue of poverty and global development! That's where they wanted us to focus. They put this ahead of many of our own ideas on unfair trade, tax dodging, and climate change. That was a huge lightbulb moment."

At first glance, seeing drug prohibition as equal to, say, the structure of world trade in global development terms might seem a bit much. But look at the numbers. Fighting the War on Drugs costs the world $100 billion a year in policing alone—and that doesn't even account for the costs absorbed in public health, untaxed revenue, and wasted human potential. The total annual global aid budget is $146 billion. Place those numbers side-by-side and the scale of this issue begins to become clear.


The illicit drugs market is the cash cow of international criminal corruption. No other branch of criminality has the potential to generate the revenue needed for the endemic, industrialized corruption of police and politicians. In the global south, according to the HPA report, it destabilizes entire states, destroying the basic functioning of government while hollowing out swathes of civil society institutions. More broadly, you can see these effects from the cocaine-financed Colombian civil wars with the FARC, to the lawless borderlands of China and Myanmar, where amphetamine and heroin smuggling gangs have set up virtual parallel states.

Martin Drewy highlights these basic issues. "Many of these are resource-poor countries, in which the drug trade makes up large sections of the economy—all of which is going completely untaxed. And while governments are busy, essentially fighting an armed conflict against their own populations, they are not providing basic services like health, education, and infrastructure." However, the problem goes much deeper than this broad analysis. One of the most interesting things about the HPA report is that it expands the conversation beyond how "producer countries" like Colombia and Afghanistan became caught up in the drug war in order to supply the needs of western consumers, and explores how the drug trade functions within countries across the global south itself.


As Drewry puts it, "There is a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty. People get involved in drugs to afford the basic essentials of life because of a lack of other options. Then they get arrested and their life chances are even more severely damaged. So there are whole families where this cycle has been passed down from one generation to the next. One girl in São Paolo told us how she had to start selling drugs because her mother had been arrested, and she needed to provide for her younger sisters. She was 12 years old. Sixty-four percent of the women in prison in Brazil are there for drug-related offenses."

The data and testimonies from India also emphasize how, more often than not, women run small-scale opium cultivation because it's a flexible income source they can pursue while also taking care of traditional domestic duties and their education. This leaves women disproportionately vulnerable both to exploitation by criminal gangs and to constant harassment by the police.

Crucially, the particular nature of the drug trade targets the poorest in an especially pernicious way. Drewry continues: "The top guys who run the gangs in these countries can afford to pay bribes, and often have serious firepower to protect them. But governments are still coming under extreme pressure from the US to be seen to be 'tough on drugs,' so the police and army need to show activity—and the axe inevitably falls on the poorest."


The report is emphatic that its call for the legalization of drugs is only the first step; what's crucial is the nature of drug regulation. Drewry finishes our conversation by insisting that "simply turning over the drug trade to multi-national corporations will not help the poor. There will need to be serious and transparent government involvement. There's no one-size-fits-all model, but initiatives like ensuring that employment in the legal industry goes to those already involved, and to limit the formation of monopolies, as is being tried in California and Bolivia, are certainly positive. There's even an opportunity here—we have the chance to create an entirely new legitimate sector from the ground up. In time, this might even come to serve as a model for other parts of developing economies which suffer from serious corruption."

The current system of drug prohibition is a crucial driver of global poverty. The effect of every pound you donate to Comic Relief or Oxfam is being undermined by how the War on Drugs functions, so a vision of an alternative future in which a legally regulated drug market becomes a model for stemming corruption and alleviating poverty is particularly inspiring.

And in the meantime, this might also serve as a reminder to look less at the billionaire drug boss El Chapo became, and more at the penniless boy from Badiraguato, Mexico, he started out as. And to change the law now, in order to protect every other penniless child just taking their first steps down his path.

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