Council of Councils is an initiative of the Council on Foreign Relations Explore CFR

Connect With Council of Councils:

Building a Better Drug Control Regime

Author: Virginia Comolli, Research Fellow for Security and Development, International Institute for Strategic Studies
Mar 21, 2014

African Union Expert Brief A Colombian anti-narcotics policemen inspect packs of cocaine seized at the port in Buenaventura (John Vizcaino/ Courtesy Reuters).


When world leaders such as Kofi Annan, the former presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, business tycoon Richard Branson, and other prominent personalities established the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) in 2011, they may not have expected such a swift impact. The goal of GCDP, a panel of twenty-two prominent leaders that issues reports on drug policy, is to "bring to the international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies." And since GCDP's inception, the debate has evolved and gained prominence, not least as a topic of discussion at the World Economic Forum 2014 in January—the first time that drug policy has featured on the agenda of the prestigious gathering. At the meeting, GCDP commissioner Kofi Annan was joined by Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, Human Rights Watch's Kenneth Roth, and Governor of Texas Rick Perry to discuss the drug policy dilemma.

In addition to the GCDP commissioners, a number of heads of state have come forward demanding a reassessment of the current prohibition-driven drug control regime. The impact of the drugs trade and the failure of the prevailing narcotics control system to bring it under control are shocking. Drugs are arguably the most lucrative illicit commodity trafficked by criminals. Through this business, criminals amass large finances that can be used to buy political capital, corrupt institutions, and, at times, fill the vacuum left by ineffective governments by establishing informal governance structures in developing countries. In some regions of the world, drug-related violence has reached levels comparable to those of conflict zones, as in the case of Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador. The growing availability of narcotics in trafficking regions has given rise to local consumer markets in countries, such as those of West Africa, where treatment and rehabilitation programs are often nonexistent, or rudimentary at best.

Colombia has experienced firsthand all of these problems. Memories from the wave of violence fueled by the drug lord Pablo Escobar in the 1980s are still alive, as is the fact that the cocaine trade has played an important role in enabling and perpetuating the insurgency by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Notably, in the context of the ongoing negotiations with Bogotá, the FARC rebels themselves have advocated for the introduction of a regulated market for the production of cocaine and marijuana. Based on this experience, it is unsurprising that the president of Colombia has become a leading spokesperson for drug policy reform, initially pushing for a new approach to drug control in 2012 at the annual session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.

The calls for reform resulted in the commissioning of a report by the Organization of American States (OAS) on the drug problem in the Americas. In the words of OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, it was "the beginning of a long-awaited discussion" about "more realistic [drug war] policies" and highlights how trends in the Western Hemisphere "lean toward decriminalization or legalization of the production, sale, and use of marijuana."

Country-level initiatives

A few powerful countries typically play an outsized role in establishing global governance structures and influencing policies that guide them. Drug policy is a case in point. The United States has dictated the agenda and its implementation. Using their superior political and economic power, dominant countries often influence less powerful countries that receive and rely upon financial and military support.

In the UN conventions on narcotics, excessive emphasis is given to combating supply, and not enough attention is paid to demand reduction. The by-product is a double-standard where a disproportionate burden is placed on weaker states that are home to narcotics production and trafficking, while consumer countries in the developed world have been allowed to experiment more with non-prohibitionist policies.

Source: This infographic originally appeared on IISS Voices

Seventeen countries have formally decriminalized the possession of drugs for personal use since the early 1990s. Most of these countries only decriminalized cannabis, though a few exceptions have included other drugs, such as in Switzerland, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Mexico and Paraguay. On the spectrum of drug policy options available to states, those that have chosen the decriminalization path have adopted a harm reduction approach. That is, they still operate within the prohibition framework but have injected a health or public health element to the equation. For instance, the introduction of drug consumption rooms has improved public health. In the case of Germany, there has been a significant reduction in drug-related deaths as a result of the opening of such facilities.

The strongest challenges to the UN narcotics conventions to date have come from Uruguay and, ironically, from two U.S. states, Colorado and Washington. In December 2013, President José Mujica signed into law a bill outlining how marijuana would be legally produced and sold as part of a regulated market. This strategy, the president believes, would help better treat addiction and help reduce crime associated with harder drugs, and enhance attempts to eliminate illegal narcotics trade. Uruguay has in fact seen traffickers smuggle narcotics across its borders into neighboring countries. Furthermore, while possession for personal use was never criminalized in Uruguay, judicial and law enforcement practices have led to the incarceration of many low-level users over the years and many have been placed in lengthy pre-trial detention without charges on the presumption of drug cultivation. As of January 1, 2014, Colorado became the first state to open 'pot shops' where consumers over the age of twenty-one can purchase up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use. Similar legislation has been adopted in Washington, although the state is experiencing some backlash from local municipalities opposed to the opening of a recreational marijuana market in certain regions of the state.

Are institutions adapting to change?

Unsurprisingly, changes have not been universally welcomed. In addition to some opposition at the local level, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the organ in charge of implementing the UN narcotics conventions, had issued a stern report reminding the U.S. federal government that it had an obligation to ensure that the new legalization legislation would not be implemented in Colorado and Washington. Following legalization in Paraguay, INCB accused the Latin American country of "knowingly [deciding] to break the universally agreed and internationally endorsed treaty."

What is promising, however, is that, in spite of being seen as the repository of drug prohibition (through related conventions and the INCB), UN bodies and departments have themselves publicly recognized the unintended consequences of the drug control system and its application, such as the geographical displacement of drug trafficking (the so-called balloon effect), the stigmatization and marginalization of drug users, and the fuelling of an ever-growing, criminal black market. From Helen Clark, head of the UN Development Program, to Michel Sidibe, the executive director of the Joint UN Program on HIV and AIDS, UN leaders have advocated for more out-of-the-box thinking on the governance of narcotics. Even the serving executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Yury Fedotov, has advocated for innovative approaches to the drug problem, noting in February 2013:

"Today, we are staring at a new drug horizon where those willing to take these substances have become the participants in a lottery that puts lives at risk. Users are potentially one tweaked molecule away from death [...] Innovative approaches should be applied by law enforcement officers. For example, New Zealand has enacted creative legislation that places the onus of proving the substance is safe on the seller."

A Tricky Legal Path

Although the drug policy reform debate has become more mainstream and a growing number of serving (not only retired) politicians and senior law enforcement officers have come forward against prohibition and in favor of a regulated market, broader change will require time.

Abolishing or even amending UN Conventions on narcotics is a complex and lengthy process, even more so given the degree of international disagreement vis-à-vis drug policy. Taking advantage of any form of discretion allowed within the existing framework is probably the most feasible option and more likely to bear fruit.

The INCB has adopted a maximalist approach in its interpretation of the conventions. Nevertheless, the 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances states that a public health approach can be adopted instead of a criminal justice one. Specifically, article 3 (paragraph 4c) reads:

"in appropriate cases of a minor nature, the Parties may provide, as alternatives to conviction or punishment, measures such as education, rehabilitation or social reintegration, as well as, when the offender is a drug abuser, treatment and aftercare."

Countries would benefit from a greater degree of subsidiarity, which would better serve their national interests. Hence, it would be advisable to move away from the tendency to micromanage policies of individual states and instead allow governments to operate within broad objectives, such as mitigating the unintended consequence of the existing drug control regime and the negative impact of narcotics trade and use.

It is clear that the current one-size-fits-all strategy, which allows for no distinction between the problems and priorities of consumer countries in the developed world and those of developing countries on the supply side, has produced limited positive results. A new approach is necessary and should respect national realities.

Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.