Monday, 26 March 2012

Global Drug Policy II: A budding renaissance of the international drug policy debate


The voices calling for a reform of the international drug control regime and drug policy are multiplying – and becoming louder. Recent years have seen significant shifts in how the debate is being led and who is participating. Despite - or perhaps because of - the conclusions in favour of the status quo that were reached in the 2009 UN drug policy review, the discussion is gaining momentum.

Alongside the usual suspects new faces are making an appearance. They bring fresh ideas and political clout to the table. For the most part, they are serious and open about their aims.

In 2009, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, co-chaired by three former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, launched the first ever high-level Latin American proposal on drug policy reform. This inspired the creation of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, chaired by ex President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil. It gathered political and business leaders from around the world, including heavyweights such as Kofi Annan, Mario Vargas Llosa and Richard Branson.

The need to reform zero-tolerance drug policies

Both commissions made it abundantly clear: the existing evidence shows that the zero-tolerance, punitive drug policies that have been pursued in the past half-century on the basis of three UN conventions are ineffective and harmful. They need to be reformed, putting the emphasis on protecting and safeguarding the well-being and safety of individuals, communities and states - not on the blind application of the counter-productive international regulations.

The current regulations have a specific political pedigree and raison d´etre, as analyzed in a recent book by Christine Jojarth. They are not set in stone.

Other unusual suspects have forcefully joined the debate. Colombia´s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, recently announced that his government was open to consider all sensible, evidence-based drug policy alternatives.

The significance and legitimacy of this announcement cannot be overstated. Colombia has been the world´s principal ´laboratory´ for punitive drug supply reduction policies in the past three decades, and these policies have led to enormous hardship and sacrifice for its citizens and institutions.

The influence of transnational organised crime

Meanwhile, drug-policy-savvy security and governance experts are unpacking the nexus between drug and security policy, wrestling with transnational organised crime and emerging forms of networked state illegality powered by drug and other lucrative illicit trafficking and money-laundering.

As I have argued, global drug policy reform is a necessary but insufficient condition to rein in transnational organised crime. Criminal networks today are deeply rooted in state and other governance arenas in many countries and regions.

The international development community rejoins the debate on international drug policy

While dodging the issue of reforming the international drug control regime, the 2011 World Development Report zeros in on the violence and institutional damage spawned by illicit drugs and global drug-trafficking in fragile countries.

Other voices in the official international development community, generally not known for its political acumen, have begun to speak about ´external stresses´ and ´upstream interventions´. Although still shy about it, development officials in donor countries are beginning to sense that fragility and violent conflict in poor countries are driven not just by local factors but also global forces, including the international drug control regime to which their governments have signed up.

It would be useful if this awakening triggered, among other things, the re-framing of the worn-out debate on ´shared responsibility’ in the fight against illicit drugs.

Re-framing ‘shared responsibility’ in drug policy

It is no longer an issue of complementing the so-called ´supply side´ reduction efforts, such as eradicating coca and poppy crops, interdicting drug shipments and arresting traffickers, with action on the ´demand side´, including drug use prevention and treatment programmes. 

While this old framing of the problem suited the goals of the main adherents of the international drug control regime, ´shared responsibility´ today needs a more relevant and useful meaning.

Governments around the world have a responsibility to reform the existing international drug control regime in such a way that it stops “[promoting] destabilization, violence and human suffering in fragile source and transit countries and [increasing] the economic and social costs of dealing with drugs worldwide.”

Keep an eye on the Governance and Development blog for more on Global Drug Policy.

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