Order from Chaos

The emerging global ‘dissensus’ on drug policy: Seizing the opportunity

Harold Trinkunas and Vanda Felbab-Brown

The global counternarcotics regime, created and enforced by the United States since the 1950s, now faces profound challenges. An increasing number of countries in Europe and Latin America find the regime’s emphasis on punitive approaches to drug use and the suppression of illicit drugs to be problematic and are asking for reform. This reaction is hardly uniform throughout the world, however, as critical players such as Russia and China, remain committed to the preservation of the regime’s long-standing punitive approach. Meanwhile, drug policy changes at the national and state level in the United States, including cannabis legalization in some states, are making it increasingly uninteresting, difficult, and inappropriate for it to play the role of the world’s toughest drug cop.

In April 2016, the international community will meet at the United Nations Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS 2016) to consider if and how the world’s drug regime should be (re)designed. The Brookings project on Improving Global Drug Policy: Comparative Perspectives and UNGASS 2016 analyzes the threats and harms generated by drug use, drug trade, and also by anti-drug policies themselves. Unlike many other drug policy reviews, our project has devoted equal attention to Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Fifteen country case studies across these regions explore national-level drug trends and policies, and the implications for UNGASS 2016. Two additional functional studies examine legalization scenarios and for the feasibility and desirability of U.N. treaty revision.

At the global level, we find that much has changed since 1998 that undermines the previous global consensus on punitive counternarcotics strategies:

  • Illicit markets and networks have shifted. The traditional blame game over responsibility for illicit drug trade and use between producing countries in the global South and consuming countries in the developed North increasingly misses changing drug trends and geopolitics. Drug consumption has risen rapidly in China and East Asia, and in Latin America, particularly Argentina and Brazil. This has led to shifts in global trafficking networks and exposed new societies to the threats and harms associated with illicit drugs.
  • The harms and costs of drugs are unevenly distributed. In particular, the rise of illicit drugs in East Asia, where production, trafficking, and consumption levels are on par with the Americas, has not been accompanied by the high rates of violence experienced in Latin America. Moreover, the impact of the drug trade on corruption, political processes, and state stability varies greatly across regions and countries. This variance in drug-related threats helps to explain why the call for reform from Latin America does not resonate in Asia. Governments in Asia are by and large not interested in drug policy liberalization, and few constituencies for public health approaches and human rights emphasis in drug policy design have emerged.
  • States no longer agree on what drug policies work. Russia and China are still firm believers in established punitive counternarcotic policies, incarcerating ever greater numbers of drug users and blaming producing countries such as Afghanistan and Myanmar for their drug troubles. But the United States is increasingly focused on policies that reduce incarceration, expand access to drug treatment, and at the state level, legalize commercial cannabis markets. Many in Latin America have joined European reformers in emphasizing more humane drug policies focused on public health; but while desirable and important, such prescriptions do not necessarily reduce violence associated with drug trafficking in the Americas or the linkages between drugs, terrorism, and state corruption and instability experienced in West Africa.

This moment of global disagreement, which will be reflected at UNGASS 2016, provides an important opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness and problematic side-effects of existing counternarcotics policies and to emphasize evidence-based strategies. While drug policies work best when tailored to local circumstances, our case studies find important consistent lessons from across the globe:

  • Law enforcement should focus on the most violent criminals and militants rather than drug users. Law enforcement agencies need to consider how their choice of targets affects criminal violence. In particular, detaining or eliminating top criminal leadership can inadvertently increase violence by provoking turf wars among subordinates. Going after the middle management of criminal organizations has a bigger impact on reducing drug violence and weakening organized crime. What does not work is the mass incarceration of users and low-level non-violent pushers, which does little to suppress drugs. Instead, it turns prisons into recruiting grounds for organized crime and terrorism. In addition, drug eradication efforts exacerbate political instability and delegitimize drug control efforts, unless the government has been able to provide sufficient economic alternatives for marginalized populations dependent on drug production.
  • Socio-economic development approaches for mitigating drug production and crime enhance political legitimacy and human rights. Instead of injecting quick money into communities at risk or chasing the replacement crop, they need to be fully integrated into overall national development efforts and address all structural drivers of illicit economies.
  • Demand reduction strategies should avoid stigmatizing and punishing drug users. Such an approach undermines efforts to counter the spread of HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases. Public health approaches, such as needle-exchanges and safe-injection sites, produce far better outcomes than punitive measures against users. Treatment efforts should acknowledge addiction as an illness, and drug prevention should focus on early-age interventions, target anti-social behavior, and emphasize youth confidence building and resistance to peer pressure. 

The goal of UNGASS 2016 should be to inject realism into the global discussion of drug policy objectives, instead of once again setting an unattainable goal of a drug-free world. This change in approach is crucial for designing and implementing more effective policies. The overall goal should be to strengthen states as they cope with the costs, harms, and threats posed by drug use and drug trade, and to do so in ways that increase, not erode, their legitimacy through policies that advance human rights and strengthen the bonds between the state and their citizens.

Check out the Brookings Project on Improving Global Drug Policy.