Taking stock of a decade of failed drug policies

A new report also outlines new indicators for assessing drug policy progress and impacts
Ann Fordham (IDPC)
Monday, October 22, 2018

colombia fumigation soldiersTen years ago, UN member states set themselves a target ‘to eliminate or reduce significantly and measurably’ the illicit cultivation, production, trafficking and use of internationally controlled substances by 2019. That deadline is fast approaching and at the next session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March, a Ministerial Segment will be held, ostensibly to “take stock” of progress made and delineate the global drug strategy for the next decade. However, the UN preparations for the March meeting have arguably missed a rather crucial step.

To date, there has been no formal evaluation or review of the last 10 years of drug control and no genuine assessment of whether progress has been made towards the target agreed in 2009. The lack of appetite for such a review does not come as a surprise. The 2018 World Drug Report produced by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) notes that “the range of drugs and drug markets are expanding and diversifying as never before” and that we “are facing a potential supply-driven expansion of drug markets, with production of opium and manufacture of cocaine at the highest levels ever recorded.”

The absence of an honest review and reflection of the last decade at this critical juncture is cause for concern. How can governments agree the way forward for the next phase in global drug policy without a serious and considered assessment of policy effectiveness and impact?

In the absence of a formal evaluation of the last decade of drug control, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) has produced a civil society shadow report: Taking stock: A decade of drug policy. The report assesses the progress made, or lack thereof, against the objectives set in the 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action. It also examines whether global drug control has contributed to, or undermined, the broader priorities of the UN of protecting human rights, advancing peace and security, and promoting development - in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. The report utilises wide-ranging data from UN, government, academic and civil society sources. And the data is staggering.  The global drug market is larger and more robust than ever despite the millions of dollars ploughed into supply reduction and harsh law enforcement. In parallel, the harms of repressive approaches have reached epic proportions.

The lack of accountability on the part of governments at the CND and from the UNODC is deplorable. Ten years ago, at the end of the previous global plan on drugs, Antonio Maria Costa, the previous Executive Director of UNODC made an important contribution to the 2008 review process and published a landmark report, Making drug control fit for purpose - Building on the UNGASS decade, in which he detailed the serious ‘unintended negative consequences’ of prohibition and repression. So far in the current phase, the UNODC has remained silent on whether progress has been made towards the 2019 target date or if policies premised on ‘elimination’ of the drug market are fit-for-purpose. Sadly, Mr Costa’s 2008 paper remains starkly relevant ten years after it was published.

As our shadow report illustrates, the carnage that the “war on drugs” has wreaked over the past decade is demonstrated by these harrowing figures:

  • A 145 per cent increase in drug-related deaths over the last decade, totalling a harrowing 450,000 deaths per year in 2015.
  • At least 3,940 people executed for a drug offence over the last decade, with 33 jurisdictions retaining the death penalty for drug offences in violation of international standards.
  • Around 27,000 extrajudicial killings in drug crackdowns in the Philippines.
  • More than 71,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2017 alone.
  • A global pain epidemic, resulting from restrictions in access to controlled medicines, which have left 75 per cent of the world’s population without proper access to pain relief.
  • Mass incarceration fuelled by the criminalisation of people who use drugs – with 1 in 5 prisoners incarcerated for drug offences, mostly for possession for personal use.

In addition to putting this compelling data before governments as they deliberate the outline for the way forward beyond 2019, the report also outlines new indicators for assessing drug policy progress and impacts, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and the protection of human rights.

The UN drug policy debate is more polarised than ever. In recognition of the failure and harms of prohibition, some jurisdictions have moved to legally regulate cannabis for adult recreational use – notably Canada’s policy came into force just last week. Yet at the same time, destructive approaches like that taken by President Duterte of the Philippines have led to some 27,000 extrajudicial killings in just two years. The difference is that while Canada’s policy does go beyond the limits of the UN drug control treaties, it does not violate basic human rights, while repressive approaches – ranging from the denial of harm reduction services and the use of forced rehabilitation, forced eradication of crops, the death penalty and unlawful killings – are serious violations of international human rights law. 

Next March, we hope that governments will acknowledge the disastrous human rights impacts of the last decade (and beyond) and openly admit that there is no progress to speak of towards eliminating the global drug market. It is time to move away from damaging ‘drug-free’ goals and failed repressive policies, and to define meaningful targets based on ensuring health, human rights, human development and peace and security.

Anything less would be a gross dereliction of duty and a recipe for more blood spilled in the name of drug control.