Where do we go from here? The drug policy debate continues

The global drug prohibition model stokes human rights violations across the world, despite the recent UN drug summit. What can be done? openDemocracy and the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) explore in our ongoing partnership.

Luciana Pol Gabriela Kletzel
16 May 2016

Counter-narcotics officer, Colombia. Fernando Vergara/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Counter-narcotics officer, Colombia. Fernando Vergara/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.More and more countries are breaking with the notion that a "drug free world" is possible − or even necessarily desirable. They urge reforms to reduce the violence associated with the illicit drug market and the harmful health effects. But the prohibition-focused international drug control treaties remain in place, despite their failure to reduce the trade after five decades of brutal efforts. Change is happening, but from the bottom up.

In the articles, videos and personal stories we are publishing this week, we reflect on the tremendous pitfalls of the ‘war on drugs’, the widening gulf among governments over the punitive approach, the myths that fed into this system in the first place, and the policy innovations that can be expected in the coming years.

This six-month editorial partnership was timed to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem (UNGASS), which took place in April. Although UNGASS fell short of expectations in many ways, it did show that the global consensus in favour of drug prohibition has crumbled. We seek to contribute to the ongoing debate with thoughtful analyses and personal tales.

What follows is a 'day-by-day' guide to our guest week on “the human cost of global drug policy”, running from 16 to 20 May 2016.


We kick off the week with an article by Mike Trace, Chair of the Board at the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), who details the disappointments and progress seen at UNGASS. As the polarisation among countries intensifies, reform-minded politicians won't wait for a global green light to start changing detrimental policies. Mike Trace predicts what we can expect to see before the next UN ‘jamboree’ in 2019: more cannabis regulation and harm reduction, and less reliance on enforcement and punishment.

The Caravan for Peace, Life and Justice travelled through five countries from Honduras to the United States to arrive in New York City on the eve of UNGASS. Leading the caravan were victims of the ‘drug war’, including families who lost loved ones to violence, addiction and incarceration. Benjamin Ramm, editor-at-large at openDemocracy, interviewed them in this video, which leaves no doubt about the urgent need for reform.


The case of the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico shocked the world with its brutality and magnitude. But enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and arbitrary detentions and torture have been on the rise for years in Mexico, as militarised efforts to combat drug trafficking, state connivance, and weak accountability and rule of law mechanisms converge. Leading human rights organisation Centro Prodh tells the story.

In a photo essay, Liliana recounts how she was threatened and forced into transporting drugs to Argentina, where she is now being incarcerated far from her two children in Venezuela. She was subjected to the methods that human trafficking networks and drug-running organisations use to lure or coerce women into their criminal activities.

Rio de Janeiro evokes images of both natural beauty and gun violence. Different policing strategies have been used to tackle drug-related crime there over the years, and the Police Pacifying Units (UPPs) were created to reduce the territorial disputes and lethal violence associated with trafficking, rather than to quash the drug trade. Ignacio Cano of Rio de Janeiro State University’s Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence weighs the successes and failures of this alternative force.


Kirsten Han was just 21 years old when she came face to face with Yong Vui Kong, a young man of the same age who faced the death penalty under Singapore’s draconian drug laws. Local officials justify the state’s killing of traffickers by arguing that it ‘saves' hundreds or thousands of other lives that would otherwise be ruined by drug addiction. Han, co-founder of We believe in Second Chances, says this dangerous logic ignores a host of important factors.

The current drug control system can be traced back to China, where an international conference was held in 1909 to propose prohibiting opium and its derivatives. Frank Dikötter, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, deconstructs the myth of the 'opium plague' in that country, which underpins much of the legitimacy of today’s so-called 'war on drugs'.


How should we gauge the success of our drug policies? David Bewley-Taylor, founding director of the Global Drug Policy Observatory at Swansea University, explores discussions around the metrics used to measure an increasingly complex and fluid illicit market along with the impact of drug-related measures in areas such as health, development and security. Post-UNGASS, profound analyses are needed to ensure that ‘success' measurements aren't focused on the wrong things.

More and more women are being incarcerated for low-level drug offences in Latin America, and most are single mothers whose detention causes harm to their children and society as a whole. In some cases women are coerced into transporting drugs, and the situation of girls and women subjected by Jamaican drug lords is an extreme, but pertinent, example. Coletta Youngers of WOLA, Margarette May Macaulay of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and Nischa Pieris of the OAS's Inter-American Commission of Women discuss, in this video on the destructive 'war on drugs'.

Supatta Ruenrurng was arrested in her native Thailand with one-and-a-half methamphetamine tablets she had brought back from Laos for her personal use. Her child's primary caregiver, Supatta was sentenced to 25 years in prison for drug importation. A gender and human rights perspective is absent in south-east Asia's drug policies, and Supatta's case demonstrates the injustice of disproportionate sentencing practices that affect women and their families. Nischa Pieris of the OAS provides an overview.


Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala − countries with firsthand knowledge of the violence perpetuated by the 'war on drugs' − urged the UN system to address the failings of global prohibition policies. But last month's UNGASS drug summit made little real headway. The world's traditional powers don't recognise the problem as their own, even though the major centres of consumption are in Europe and North America. Luciana Pol of CELS writes.

The story of Miguel Ángel Durrels is a tale of a drugs arrest that went terribly wrong. Miguel was picked up by police in a Buenos Aires suburb for possessing 78 grams of marijuana. Some 12 hours later, he was found dead in a police station holding cell area that a judge had expressly ruled could not be used to detain anyone. His family still has doubts about the official version of events and calls for an end to the persecution of consumers.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

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