It´s high time to rethink how we measure global drug policy

What are urgently needed are new goals, targets and indicators for real reductions in supply and demand, instead of investing in military hardware, police equipment and intelligence support.

Ilona Szabo de Carvalho Robert Muggah
12 January 2015
 Political leaders and analysts discuss drug policy at Davos.

Political leaders and analysts discuss drug policy at Davos.WEF/Flickr.Some rights reserved.The war on drugs has come under unprecedented criticism over the past few years. For the first time since the inception of the drug regime in the 1960s, world leaders are calling for the regulation of all drugs, and not just marijuana. Politicians, businessmen and activists from across North, Central and South America are leading the charge. 

Several Latin American presidents are at the forefront of this drug policy revolution, insisting on the legalization of cannabisopium poppies and coca. And western European leaders are also demanding that punitive drug laws be replaced with new approaches emphasizing public health, human rights and safety.

It is not surprising that leaders from Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Uruguay are insisting on a new approach. For them, the war on drugs is personal.  The region is ground zero for the $330 billion dollar a year drug trafficking business. It is also experiencing increasing homicide rates – several times the global average – owing in large part to the ruthless militarization of drug policy in the region.

For more than five decades the focus of drug policy was disproportionately slanted toward reducing the supply of illicit drugs in producing and transit countries. Success was measured by the extent to which illicit crops were eradicated, illegal drugs interdicted, and producers, traffickers and consumers put behind bars. Demand - and harm-reduction strategies were an afterthought.

There was just one problem – the war on drugs is not working. It has never worked. In spite of the faithful pursuit of fumigation programs, counter-narcotics measures, and "just say no" campaigns, neither demand nor supply have declined. By the UN´s own admission, the war on drugs failed. Instead, it exacerbated violence, filled prisons to the bursting point and shattered the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people along the way. And while the positions of hardline enforcers are softening, more than $100 billion is spent on prosecuting this strategy annually.

One way to change the direction of global drug policy is to literally change the terms of the debate. Since 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has done precisely that. It has encouraged presidents, prime ministers and business leaders to radically rethink ways of dealing with drugs, including how they measure success. The Commissioners advocate for the reduction of supply and demand – but they differ fundamentally from hardliners in how this should be achieved. 

Most of the recommendations of the Global Commission are not nearly as radical as hardliners assume. In fact, most of its suggestions are aligned with the letter of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. But instead of investing in military hardware, police equipment and intelligence support, the Commission believes that real reductions in drug supply and demand will come through improving public health and safety, strengthening human rights and anti-corruption measures, and doubling down on sustainable development.

What are urgently needed are new goals, targets and indicators to help craft a more effective and efficient international drug policy. A new paper issued by the Igarapé Institute and the Global Commission Secretariat does precisely this. It is informed by interviews with dozens of the world´s leading experts working in law enforcement, justice, and public health and builds on similar monitoring initiatives underway from Australia to the UK

New metrics are essential to redirecting global drug policy in the twenty first century. They are not an esoteric technical exercise. At the moment, conventional drug policy metrics send the wrong message to politicians, military generals, police chiefs and prison wardens. They may show how tough a government is being in pursuing a war on drugs, but they say very little about whether such an approach is successful or not.

New metrics can re-frame the global drug policy narrative. The 6 goals, 16 targets and 86 indicators outlined in the report call for ending the criminalization of drug users, curbing drug use through public health measures, diminishing the incarceration of non-violent drug-related offenders, targeting violent organized crime groups and traffickers, providing meaningful alternatives to illicit crop production, and encouraging experimentation with different approaches to regulating drugs.

New drug policy goals, targets and indicators can help change the discussion in a positive direction. Setting more nuanced metrics can help governments, private sector actors and civil societies set better priorities, design more powerful legislation, and properly resource programs. While some of the underlying data may still be missing or of poor quality, refocusing attention on new benchmarks can incentivize improvements in data collection.

Now is not the time to pursue reckless change. Political leaders should proceed cautiously when thinking about re-orienting their drug policies. While encouraged to experiment, they should do so on the basis of a careful review of the local context and their own needs and capabilities. There are no one-size-fits all solutions and experimentation as in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, UruguayNew Zealand the United States is to be encouraged.

It is crucial to move the drug policy debate forward in a more humane direction. This is especially so as the United Nations prepares for a special session of the General Assembly on Drugs (UNGASS) in 2016. We have an unprecedented opportunity to inject new thinking into a global drug regime fit for purpose in the twenty first century.

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