A State-building Approach to the Drug Trade Problem

The Growing Global Dissensus on How to Combat Drug Trafficking

The United Nations Security Council has increasingly highlighted organized crime, particularly drug trafficking, as requiring the coordinated focus of various United Nations bodies and the Secretary-General.1

The escalation of drug trade-related violence in Mexico and Central America where inadequate rule of law institutions have been overwhelmed by intense organized crime; the emergence of drug smuggling in West Africa, which contributes to its cauldron of other illegal economies and poor governance; and the deep penetration of drug trafficking into the political and economic life in Afghanistan and Pakistan have all captured policy attention.

Yet many existing policies to combat the illegal drug trade and associated organized crime have not been highly effective. Premature eradication of drug crops, interdiction too narrowly preoccupied with stopping illicit flows, and imprisonment of drug users have proven to be ineffective and even outright detrimental to key policy objectives, such as weakening criminal organizations and their linkages to militant groups, improving security and rule of law and reducing consumption. These policies have also often been counter productive with respect to other important goals, such as mitigating violent conflict, fostering good governance and promoting human rights.

Hailed by critics of the existing global counter-narcotics regime as a major breakthrough, The Drug Problem in the Americas, a recent Organization of American States report, emphasized the deficiencies of the dominant counter-narcotics approaches and the intense and chronic problems they have been generating in Latin America, including violence, displacing crime to other areas and social conflict. Significantly, the report urged considering decriminalization or legalization as appropriate responses to dealing with marijuana, marking the first time that a major international organization composed of standing national governments suggested such a major loosening of the existing counter-narcotics regime. Indeed, various countries within Latin America are likely to increasingly break with the existing law enforcement heavy drug suppression model. They may thus usher in an unravelling of the global counter-narcotics regime that has been in existence for more than 50 years.

A similar desire to fundamentally restructure the existing drug policy regime is not paralleled in other parts of the world. China and the Russian Federation, for example, currently prefer tougher penalties against users, more intense eradication of illicit crops, and more aggressive action against trafficking—in other words, a considerable intensification of the existing dominant approaches. In some African countries, entire institutions are threatened by a possible capture by organized crime groups, sometimes linked to politicians, leading influential local voices to call for much tougher approaches. As the United Nations heads towards another major review of the global counter-narcotics regime in 2016, there is now more dissensus among Member States as to how to deal with the drug trade than in many decades.

The Threats Posed by Drug Trafficking

One reason for the dissensus is that the drug trade poses differing but often intense threats to different societies and countries.

Particularly in countries with weak rule of law institutions, the drug trade can threaten the state politically by providing an avenue for criminal organizations and corrupt politicians to enter the political space. This undermines the democratic process, the legitimacy of the existing political arrangements and, under some circumstances, even stability. The problem perpetuates as the success of politicians bankrolled with illicit money tempts others to participate in the illicit economy, leading to endemic corruption and institutional dysfunction at both the local and national levels.

An intense drug trade with powerful traffickers also produces pernicious effects on the law enforcement and justice systems of the country. As the illicit economy expands, the investigative capacity of the law enforcement and judicial processes diminishes. Impunity for criminal activity also increases, undermining the credibility and deterrence of the justice system. Moreover, powerful traffickers frequently turn to violent means to deter and avoid prosecution, killing or bribing prosecutors, judges, as well as witnesses and journalists. Illicit economies also have huge economic effects. A burgeoning drug economy contributes to inflation, potentially harming legitimate, export-oriented, import-substituting industries. It encourages real estate speculation and a rapid rise in real estate prices, and undermines currency stability. It also displaces legal production.

However, the drug trade, particularly illicit crop cultivation, generates jobs—at times providing employment for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people in a particular locale.

In its most pernicious form, large-scale illegal drug trade can pose major security threats to the state. Under some circumstances, organized crime, as witnessed in Mexico or Central America over the past decade, can become so violent and overwhelm a country’s law enforcement capacity that it amounts to a national security, not merely a public safety, threat.

The illegal drug trade often also exacerbates pre-existing violent conflict. Militant groups that embrace drug trafficking, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Sendero Luminoso in Peru, the Revolutionary Armed Forces and paramilitaries in Colombia, derive large benefits from such illicit economies. These, in turn, allow militants to improve the physical resources they have for fighting the state: they can hire more combatants, pay them better salaries, and equip them with better weapons. Better procurement and logistics also enhance the militants’ “freedom of action”— namely, their scope of tactical options available and the ability to optimize their tactics and strategy. Critically, sponsorship of the drug trade often greatly increases the militants’ political capital, in particular the extent to which the population welcomes and tolerates the presence of the militants. The more the state tries to destroy the illegal drug economy, the more their political capital grows.

The Complex Effect of the Illegal Drug Trade on Human Security

The reason that large populations in many parts of the world embrace criminals and militants who sponsor the drug trade is that inadequate or problematic state presence, dire poverty, and social and political marginalization leave them few or no legal alternatives to provide for their economic survival and other socioeconomic needs. For many, the drug trade is the only way to provide for their human security and their only chance for social advancement, even while involved in insecurity, criminality and marginalization. The more the state is absent or deficient in the provision of legal jobs and public goods, including public safety and suppression of street crime, access to justice and dispute resolution mechanisms, enforcement of contracts as well as socioeconomic public goods, such as infrastructure, health care and education, the more communities are susceptible to becoming dependent on and supporters of criminal entities and militant actors who sponsor the drug trade and other illegal economies.

By sponsoring labour-intensive illicit economies, particularly illicit crop cultivation, criminal and militant actors can provide public goods, suboptimal as they may be. Most importantly, they sponsor employment in the illegal economy. This ability to provide employment is all the more significant in places where political-economic arrangements, such as taxation systems, weak fiscal capacity, limited access to education, and monopolistic economic and political setups, often fail to create jobs even during times of economic growth.

Criminal entities and militant groups often provide physical security as well. In fact, though they are sources of insecurity and crime in the first place, they often regulate the level of violence and suppress street crime, such as robberies, theft, kidnapping, and even homicides. Functioning as order and rule providers brings criminals and militants important support from the community, in addition to facilitating the illegal business since illicit economies also benefit from reduced transaction costs and increased predictability. Organized crime groups and militant actors also provide dispute resolution mechanisms and even set up unofficial courts and enforce contracts. Additionally, they provide socioeconomic public goods, such as roads and health clinics. The more they do so, the more they become de facto proto-state governing entities.

Designing an Effective Response: A State-Building Approach

It is important to stop thinking about the illegal drug trade solely as aberrant social activity to be suppressed; instead, we need to think of crime as part of a competition in state-making between the drug traffickers and formal state institutions over the population’s allegiance. In areas of state weakness and under provision of public goods, the effective state strategy towards the drug trade is thus not simply one of law enforcement suppression of crime.

Premature eradication of illicit crops in the absence of alternative livelihoods being in place; harsh imprisonment of users and farmers; saturation of areas with police officers, especially if they are corrupt and inadequately trained; interdiction policies excessively preoccupied with suppressing drug flows; and highly repressive measures—such approaches only attack the symptoms of the social crisis rather than its underlying conditions.

A more appropriate response is a multifaceted state-building effort that seeks to strengthen the bonds between the state and marginalized communities dependent on, or vulnerable to, participation in the illicit activity for reasons of economic survival and physical insecurity.

Such a multifaceted approach requires that the state address all the complex reasons that populations turn to illegality, including law enforcement deficiencies and physical insecurity, poor rule of law, suppression of human rights, economic poverty and social marginalization. It also requires the recognition that addicts are chronically ill people whose condition and interaction with the rest of society will only be worsened by imprisonment.

Efforts need to focus on ensuring that peoples and communities will obey laws. By increasing the likelihood that illegal behaviour and corruption will be punished while also creating the social, economic and political environment in which the laws are consistent with the needs of the people, laws can be seen as legitimate and hence be internalized.

Reconceptualizing and addressing the drug trade as an opportunity to make states more effective and more accountable and to strengthen the bonds between citizens and institutions would not only make for more effective and more human rights friendly policies; it would also provide a new unifying framework around which a global regime to deal with illegal and addictive substances could emerge, and also allow for legalizing marijuana in some countries and toughening law enforcement in others. Such a reconceptualization does not obviate tensions that drug policy externalities will generate in a world with a likely increasing variety and divergence of drug policies. Even today, such spillovers and tensions exist. However, it provides a platform for cooperation while permitting context-specific policies.


1 See Statements by the President of the Security Council (SPRST/2010/4), 24 February 2010 and (S/PRST/2009/32), 8 December 2009.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally posted by the
UN Chronicle