Home » Side event: Improving Global Drug Policy: Comparative Perspectives and UNGASS 2016

Side event: Improving Global Drug Policy: Comparative Perspectives and UNGASS 2016

Organisers: Brookings Institution, the Netherlands, IDPC

Project overview – Harold Trinkunas, Senior Fellow and Co-director of Improving Global Drug Policy: Comparative Perspectives & UNGASS 2016 at The Brookings Institution

This project arose with view to informing policy debates at UNGASS 2016 and beyond. Interesting time to engage because for the first time there was a debate emerging amongst member states about how to deal with detrimental side effects and problems that continue to be produced by drug trafficking and the control regime itself. Changes at state and local level are becoming more difficult in the US for example. We looked at 15 case studies in regions including Asia and Africa. These papers can be found at the www.brookings.edu/globaldrugpolicy

The situation now is that distinction between producing, trafficking and consuming countries have broken down, which can lead to breaking down of coalitions. Side effects such as violence associated with production and trafficking in Latin America in particular, is driving divergences toward drug policies. Disagreement between traditional enforcers of the regime and amongst reformers are also driving debate at global level. Vanda will now talk about some of the broad findings.

Project recommendations – Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow and Co-director of Improving Global Drug Policy: Comparative Perspectives & UNGASS 2016 at The Brookings Institution

The 15 case studies are driven by position that drug use can be problematic for some individuals, drug trade can cause range of harms but so does drug policy. So all the papers looked at issues including drug trends, drug threats and harms, effectiveness of drug policies, their negative consequences and implications for the country’s position at UNGASS. I wrote the Afghanistan case study but won’t talk about it today. I collaborated with Harold to draft the overview paper, it is not a consensus paper because each of the authors put forward their own recommendations. Nevertheless broad themes emerged, including that reducing violence needs to be at least a primary objective of drug policy. There are many forms of violence. Criminal markets in Asia are by and large very peaceful compared with markets in Latin America. In relation to terrorism, drug suppression efforts have not helped to solve problems. Countries need to tailor their law enforcement targeting and strategies to national contexts, to avoid them producing counterproductive effects. Good state presence is often precondition to alternative development but should not lead to human rights approaches. The papers recognise the diverse approaches to drug policy to achieve development outcomes.

We also had papers focused on use, and all agree that incarceration of users and non-violent, low-level offenders is counterproductive and has negative effects of crime, in some cases turning prisons into schools for criminals. We recognise that mild, short, swift penalties may be more effective. Focus on early interventions, and evaluation, evidence-based approaches, and avoiding unrealistic goals such as declaring that the world should be drug-free in 5 years, are measures we support.

To be effective, policies should be supported by local communities and flexibilities should be permitted to support realisation of traditional rights, for example.

European drug policies: The Netherlands and Sweden – Caroline Chatwin, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Kent

I evaluated drug policy approaches in Europe, in the context of Europe. In Europe, national governments are permitted to pursue their own drug policy approach. The Netherlands for example, demonstrates the coffee shop policy which is an approach to cannabis within the parameters of the convention; while some countries pursue prohibitionist, abstinence-oriented policies.  Can we use data to tell us which approach is more successful? With prohibitionist policies, the results can include poorer health outcomes and poorer quality of life indicators. But overall data can’t show us success. So can Europe show a united approach to drug policy reform? The Netherlands has an innovative approach to drug policy with their coffee shops, while there is some support for wholesale legal regulation of cannabis markets. There is some agreement, eg. on death penalty, but overall Europe can’t speak as a whole on reform because of lack of consensus and have to stick with position supporting the 3 conventions. The conventions do impose important limitations, leading to effects such as the backdoor problem of cannabis supply in the NL. While we haven’t found a solution to drug problems, a variety of practices within Europe is desirable, eg. legal regulation of cannabis, until we know what works best therefore the paper concludes that the conventions shouldn’t restrict policy experimentation. There should be evaluation of experimental policies by established networks so that they can be subject to further consideration, eg. in UN framework.

Latin America and the international counternarcotics regime – Alejandro Hope, Independent Security Analyst

I wrote the Mexico chapter, and focussed on how the drugs situations has changed a lot more than drug policies in Mexico. We found that volumes of cocaine moving through the region has declined, changes with marijuana policies recently has led to decline in cross-border trade with US, heroin is on the rise as demonstrated by indicators for supply and demand, methamphetamine supply indicators show increased production, though demand in US has flattened. Broad changes includes that the large criminal networks that used to dominate trafficking no longer do, the market for trafficking is much more diverse now and more involved in more damaging tactics such as kidnaps.

There is still a heavily militarised approach to drug policy, with around 40,000 troops around the country working on drugs; eradication attempts continue, and; various forms of ‘kingpin’ strategy are still dominant, and cooperation with US on supply reduction is still strong. On cannabis policy there are a lot of changes, eg. Chile and Colombia, and in Mexico the Supreme Court ruled in a case allowing cultivation for personal use but we are still very far from creating legally regulated markets for cannabis.

United Nations challenges and opportunities – Martin Jelsma, Program Director, The Transnational Institute

I looked at the history of the international drug control system in my paper for Brookings, to see what we can learn about prospects for reform. The first phase I focussed on was the negotiations of the treaties which ended in the 1980s. The rhythm of current debates began in 1989, triggered by a moment of crisis when in Colombia a presidential candidate was assassinated by Pablo Escobar’s cartel. So the government made a call to the international community to call for a more globally coordinated strategy and raising doubts about current strategies which focus on supply reduction, calling for a re-balancing of drug policies with more focus on arms control and demand reduction. Cocaine production was shifting away from Bolivia too. UNGASS are opportunities for addressing major problems and should not be taken lightly.

The first UNGASS in 1990 called for a focus on demand reduction and the next one in 1998 called for more UN system wide coherence and also aimed to achieve a drug-free world by 2008, for which doubts were raised soon after. 25 years after the first UNGASS there are again calls for a shift, and again from Latin America, relating to the huge escalation of violence in Mexico. The original call for more UN system wide coherence has resulted in complete failure, there is less coherence now than before. There is now a more broken consensus amongst countries, with countries taking divergent drug policy approaches with ‘soft defections’ such as countries adopting decriminalisation, resulting with some outwardly breaching the conventions, namely the establishment of legally regulated markets for cannabis in Uruguay and some US states. It is becoming clear that countries are calling for more shifts, such as stronger positions on human rights. It is hopeful to see the debate on the outcome document, aiming to achieve more effective outcomes. There has been suggestions of an expert advisory group to help after the UNGASS on how to translate the outcomes into more concrete actions in years to come, in particular for the next review moment in 2019—this is another mechanism that can be used.

Mike (Chair): many member states calling for evidence-based drug policies, so please do take a read of the Brookings papers for their analysis findings.


Q: what are main factors driving differences in drug markets in Latin America and Asia?

Vanda: in both settings there are intermeshing of state and criminal activities but there are varying law enforcement capacities. Because there is a lot less violence, there is a lot less support for drug policy reform in Asia, although there is violence in other forms such as high rates of incarceration and human rights violations. The deterrence law enforcement capacity in Asia, and Europe, is a lot higher than in Latin America—not the severity of penalties but the capacity to enforce penalties.

Alejandro: there is far greater farming production capacity in Latin America, which makes violence cheaper. Migration patterns are also connected to higher levels of violence, eg. US exporting the gang problem to Central America. But overall agree this is an issue of state capability.

Q: how will the shift in drug policy affect the rise of local gangs in Latin America?

Alejandro: Local gangs are a lot less connected than before and engage more in activities such as extortion and kidnappings, so their income streams are less reliant on drug-related activities so drug policy shifts should affect them less. But there are also environmental factors.

Vanda: rule of law and enforcement of regulations is a major factor – there has to be the capacity for enforcement, and this is as important as policy design itself.

Mike: has cannabis cultivation declined because of policy changes in North?

Alejandro: not sure about levels of cultivation but eradication activities targeting cannabis has decreased. Maybe because of cannabis legalisation in US, amongst other factors.

Mike: after the last 2 UNGASS, was the outcome considered a success or failure or something in between?

Martin: After first UNGASS in 1990, it was considered somewhat a success, partly because of other factors such as fall of communism, so there was more optimism that international community could work together. There was a more action-oriented list that resulted from the first UNGASS. But by 1995, 1996, countries were getting stuck in political differences and the optimism started to disappear.

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