Claire Yorke and Benoît Gomis
Drug policy is a toxic issue for politicians, one that they usually want to avoid for fear of the political backlash. To highlight the dilemma between politics and policy in this field, drug policy expert
And yet the past 12 months have seen a clear shift in the debate. Building on calls for change from former political leaders, including
In the past few months, a number of leaders have begun to join the movement questioning the wisdom of the existing policy regime. President
The 'war on drugs' was initiated in 1971 when
The narrow focus on crop eradication and criminalization of consumption and low-level drug dealing has meant that policy has failed to take into account wider socio-economic and health factors, inadvertently decreasing security.
In addition to the often-cited fact that more than 55,000 people have been killed in the past six years from drug-related violence in
Relative 'successes' in crop eradication in
Alarmingly, drug consumption has also diversified significantly: new drugs were detected at the rate of around one a week in the
Jailing drug users doesn't work
Far from reducing the problem, existing policy has brought unintended consequences for people around the world.
Beyond the war on drugs, the emphasis on the punishment of low-level drug users in most countries has not reduced organized crime and has aggravated social and economic exclusion as well as discrimination. The incarceration rates in
Additionally, imprisoning low-ranking drug dealers is a costly strategy: A
From recognition to action
Recognising that the current drug control regime has failed is only the start of defining where the policy vision has gone wrong. Five facts must be acknowledged.
… It's not just about drugs.
At a recent conference at Chatham House, the concluding address included the remark: 'I know the discussions today are under the Chatham House rule but please do quote me on this: I, Professor
… It's not just about one country.
The challenge of drug trafficking is a global one, as seen by the flows of cocaine from
… It's not just about trafficking one commodity.
Although the global drug market is estimated to be the third biggest market in the world -- after oil and arms -- at an annual value of
… It's not just about one sector.
The drugs challenge involves a number of policy responsibilities including in public health, education, security, defence, economics and finance, and justice. Far from being an isolated issue, drugs are a societal one that must be considered in conjunction with other relevant factors, a requirement often omitted or ignored for the sake of simplicity in public policy.
… It's not just about the symptoms, but the causes.
As the Mexican journalist
In his essay On Liberty published in 1859,
From this often ignored moral principle follow two essential policy principles. Firstly, governments should have a clear understanding of what the policy objectives are.
Secondly, once targets are established, a clear understanding of how to measure the impact of the policy is essential. The existing metrics of policy success are misleading. Focusing on statistics such as the numbers of arrests and drugs seized ignores the complexity of the issue. Although those numbers might look promising, other more essential indicators will show a different picture, such as levels of consumption for other addictive substances -- tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs -- the size of organized crime groups, drug-related violence, and the rate of drugrelated HIV and other diseases.
Governments must also improve their ability to identify different levels of correlation and to distinguish them from causality. Failing to understand which set of factors led to an effect is bad for future decision-making. A thorough scientific assessment of the impact of policy across relevant sectors and countries is indispensable for such a global and interconnected issue.
Short-term drawbacks and discomforts will be inevitable when changing policy, but continuing along the current course is unsustainable. The drugs challenge is a global one and the debate around it is evolving at an unprecedented rate. Yet political opposition, public uncertainty and national and international obstacles remain.
On such a difficult issue, decision-making processes will require evidence, a lot of which is already available, as well as political courage and leadership to shape and lead public opinion. A lone international regime will find it hard to unify the diverse realities across the world. And the heterogeneity of the international community and unique characteristics of each country means there can be no panacea.
A new set of international guidelines is needed, informed by shared values and a proportionate sense of harms and response. The first step towards this is finding the appropriate space and political cover for politicians to give the issue the attention and significance it deserves without fear of subsequently facing the political wilderness.
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(c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.