WATCH: Experts discuss improving global drug policy

Is there a growing “dissensus” globally on the best approach to drug policy and the legitimacy of the international drug control regime? This, among other topics, was the focus of a discussion hosted on April 7 by the Brookings Foreign Policy and Governance Studies programs. As the U.N. General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem convenes next week, there are new opportunities to improve global drug policy.

Harold Trinkunas, Brookings senior fellow and director of the Latin America Initiative stressed that global debate around drug policy is on the rise, saying: 

“Some countries in Latin America are increasingly in disagreement with some of the more punitive features of the international drug control regime while other countries in Asia, particularly China, as well as Russia, very much are adhering to the regime as it currently stands.” 

John Walsh, senior associate for drug policy and the Andes at Washington Office on Latin America, argued that UNGASS 2016 is likely to be a disappointment, at least in the short term, because some powerful member states seek to prevent a wider discussion on the issue. He noted that for political reasons, these states chose not block the UNGASS altogether, but their influence kept the conversation at the Vienna negotiations relatively on course with the existing drug policy regime. As a result, he believes that “the outcome document that was negotiated in Vienna last month is largely a ratification of business as usual.” He then discussed why this outcome should not be a surprise.

Brookings Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown laid out some of the key findings from Brookings’s Improving Global Drug Policy Papers: prioritizing violence reduction over reducing the flow of illegal drugs, putting public health ahead of criminalization of drug use, the importance of local institutional and cultural settings on the effectiveness of particular policies, and the role of civil society on both sides of the debate. She then addressed the impact of legacy and the ways in which countries’ individual experience with drugs has impacted their drug policy. While Latin America has experienced extreme violence associated with the drug trade, in East Asia drug-related violence is very low. Additionally, Latin America generally has a shared feeling that former “imperial powers” (largely in the developed world) have forced a specific drug policy on them, while East Asian countries tend to feel that their former “imperial powers” are responsible for their high levels of drug use, specifically of opium. Different historical experiences of the costs and harms of drug trafficking, use, and policies have helped produce major disconnects across regions.

Diving deeper into U.S. domestic drug policy, John Hudak—Brookings senior fellow and author of the recent Brookings Essay “The medical marijuana mess: A prescription for fixing a broken policy”—explained how opinions on marijuana policy are changing in the United States. He outlined the failures of current U.S. drug policies and the growing grassroots experimentation with easing those policies. 

Ambassador David Johnson of the International Narcotics Control Board, joking “I suppose it’s my job to tell all of you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, so I’ll do my best to do that,” argued that the perceived “dissensus” on drug policy is in fact rather small and that discussions about cannabis legalization are limited to a small number of states in Latin America, North America, and Europe. He then went on to address some of the points made by the other panelists and explored the elements of drug policy that are determined by states, not the international system.

Felbab-Brown addressed a question from the audience on the lack of poppy eradication in Afghanistan, saying she believes that not eradicating poppy is actually a good thing for the country because of the political and social disruptions eradication would cause.

In closing remarks, both Hudak and Walsh noted the failings of existing prescription drug policies and the dangers of unregulated drug use, whether legal or illegal. Felbab-Brown highlighted the complexity of drug policy—she pointed to Mexico, where she argued that drug legalization won’t eliminate cartel violence, and Thailand, where the successful eradication of poppy created the opportunity for a more devastating methamphetamine trade. Ambassador Johnson closed the discussion by commenting: “focusing on institution-building is probably the most effective drug policy one could conjure.” 

For more on this topic, RSVP to attend the next Brookings Debate “Should the federal government remove marijuana from its list of Schedule I drugs?” on April 14.