Worried about Illegal Drugs? Change the Policy and Think Long-Term

Worried about Illegal Drugs? Change the Policy and Think Long-Term

Despite multiple efforts and the many resources invested in the last half century, policies and interventions to reduce the supply and demand of illegal drugs have had little impact. This ineffectiveness is partly due to how the illegal drug market adapts and resists to change. The routes for trafficking vary, production methods evolve using new technologies, and drug users switch from one substance to another. In an interconnected world, governmental success in implementing drug policy in one country or region could lead to new problems in others. Within the same country, while drug policy advances, reducing the production and supply in some territories, others fall back, making policy achievements transient and unsustainable.

The current policy paradigm is problematically based on a cost-benefit assumption that the benefit of state intervention exceeds the cost of allowing access to drugs. In practice, however, a prohibitionist drug policy can benefit governing institutions and citizens but can also be detrimental and counterproductive. In several cases, interventions under this model produce collateral damages and exacerbate the violence and insecurity they are intended to remedy.

Mexico, Central and South America experience this drug-related violence, especially  connected to the confrontation between police and armed forces and criminal organizations. In Mexico, there is a strong relationship between arrests, the elimination of gang leaders, and surges in violence, as well as a strong relationship between military interventions and increases in homicides and between gang leader arrests and ordinary crime. Drug trafficking, organized crime but also the war on drugs are key explanatory factors for high homicide rates in the world's most violent countries.

Additionally, criminalization and punishment of drug users make the problem worse, stigmatizing vulnerable populations, increasing health risks, and contributing to serious human rights violations. These policies saturate police forces and aggravate problems like prison overcrowding. From the public policy perspective and take into account the available evidence, we need to find more efficient and humane solutions. 

Drug policy has lacked space for innovation in recent years. There is more evidence of what does not work and little information on what could work. Discussions about alternative policies continue to consider only two extremes: prohibition or legalization. These options are guided more by popular sentiments, fears, and old convictions than by pragmatism and common sense. The real crisis generated by illicit drugs is not only founded in the inadequate implementation of the current policy by the governments but in the incapacity to devise sustainable solutions.

The good news is that in recent years, officials, experts, multilateral groups, and non-governmental organizations have discussed how to develop a more humane, efficient, and sustainable drug policy. To create a better drug policy, governments must implement these changes.

1.      Abandon the idea of a “drug-free world” and choose a realistic objective. As former United Nations Secretary General Koffi Annan stated, drugs are risky and have destroyed many lives, but ineffective government policies have destroyed many more. The utopian “drug-free world” has instead created a dystopia of more drug abuse, disease, empowerment of criminal organizations, and criminalization of vulnerable people. The world needs a more sensible drug policy, focused on protecting citizens and reducing the illegal drug markets’ negative impacts. Policies must remember that the objective of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961), the cornerstone of the today’s international drug control regime, is to advance the “health and welfare of mankind.”

2.      Connect drug policy with sustainable development. The links between illegal drugs and the underlying conditions and risk factors that affect development, such as poverty, marginality and vulnerability; the impacts of illegal drug markets on communities; and  drug policies’ consequences for specific populations, are clear. To achieve sustainable change, drug policy must consider the causes of the problem and not simply deal with its consequences. This does not imply ignoring illegal drug economies and criminal organizations, nor replacing drug policy for a development strategy, but rather an interaction between the two agendas. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer an opportunity to address the limitations of the current approach and to bring new ideas to reduce drug-related harms, revitalize communities, and strengthen the social safety net.

3.      Fix the broken system and reframe drug law enforcement. Available evidence shows that eliminating organized crime and illegal markets is not viable, even in states with the strongest capabilities. In the best-case scenario, states can mitigate criminal economies’ negative consequences, transform criminal groups’ behavior to reduce harm, and lessen their social, economic, and institutional influences. Increasing punishment severity is not effective in halting drug flow. In fact, a predominately punitive and reactive approach can cause the opposite effect, making drug use, distribution, and production even more harmful to the community. Policy should be oriented to lower illegal markets’ exposure and visibility, focusing the attention on its most harmful manifestations.

4.      Reduce the damage caused by drug use rather than limit drug use itself. Drug policy conversations disagree about whether to focus on preventing drug use or on treating addiction and reducing its negative effects. Evidence shows that prevention programs in schools, families, and communities have collectively modest effects, especially purely didactic programs. Effective prevention programs would instead lower the age of onset of drug use, particularly among youth. The most promising approaches are focused on providing evidence-based, professional treatment and harm reduction programs, such as needle and syringe programs that help reduce HIV risk without increasing drug injection.

5.      Go local. Illegal drugs manifest differently and create different challenges in each local environment. Local administrations are better positioned to make a difference in community wellbeing because they have a greater knowledge, perspective, and responsibility to implement public policies. Cities and municipalities have greater flexibility to formulate interventions and apply of novel policies. In fact, many of the most sensitive and successful strategies have occurred in cities, including syringe exchanges, drug consumption rooms, and drug provision to prevent overdoses.

6.      Change the way to measure success. Most figures and statistics that measure drug policy success are process-oriented indicators – arrests, seizures, and extraditions – that are not connected with outcomes and societal impacts. Governments construe many of these actions as achievements without analyzing community health and wellbeing. Given this reality, as the Global Commission on Drug Policy states, process measures can give the impression of success when the reality is the opposite. New policy should not eliminate current indicators, but rather include new measures to track the intended and unintended consequences of drug policy. The International Expert Group on Drug Policy Measures has already measured some of these indicators: poverty levels in families where illegal drug production is the primary source of income; proportion of individuals with substance use disorders who have access to evidence-based treatment; and numbers of investigations, prosecutions for drug-related corruption, and money laundering cases involving government officials. It is important that states and civil society organizations collect and utilize data to identify the impacts of the interventions, identifying the lessons learned and making the necessary adjustments. Poorly monitored and weakly evaluated programmes can cause more harm than good.

For the last decade, despite new evidence about the low efficiency and high costs of current drug policy, changes have been marginal. Under a rhetoric that equates illegal drugs with crime and demands hard and fast solutions against the illegal market, popular resistance to major reforms has prevented new alternatives. However, to have a fundamental and sustainable change in drug policy, governments must persuade the citizens that there are better ways to deal with the illegal drugs, reducing their negative impacts. This is true not only for the Global South, were the drug policy has been disconnected from development objectives, but also for the marginalized communities in the Global North. It is important to articulate comprehensives responses, adapted to each context, in order to protect the most vulnerable groups, revitalize communities and generate the conditions for a sustainable and inclusive human development.


Juan Carlos Garzón-Vergara is a research associate at Fundación Ideas para la Paz (Colombia) and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center (Washington, DC).  Garzón has advised the Colombian Government and has served as an international consultant on security issues and criminal policy for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations University, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union. Garzón is a Political Scientist from the Universidad Javeriana (Colombia), a specialist in Conflict Resolution and Theory at the Universidad de Los Andes (Colombia), and has received an M.A. in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University. He has also authored newspaper and academic articles related to the armed conflict in Colombia, the peace process, drug trafficking, urban violence, and organized crime.