ISSN 2330-717X

New Global Drug Policy Depends On Effective Governance – Analysis


A new report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy has re-energized the international debate on drug policy reform. To make headway, though, more attention has to be paid to globalized organized crime and strengthening governance structures, as well as dealing in a more humane and effective way with drug use.

By Markus Schultze-Kraft for ISN Insights

The Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), which integrates 19 global leaders, recently released a report calling for a profound change in drug policy. In essence, the document is an eloquent summary of the alternative drug policy debate of the past decade or two.

DEA Operation Mallorca, 2005
DEA Operation Mallorca, 2005

What is different or new about this report are the people behind it. The list includes some ´usual suspects´, such as three former Latin American presidents who co-chaired a previous Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy. But the majority of the group´s members are new to the field. Among them are a former UN Secretary-General, a serving European prime minister, a former US secretary of state, bankers and a celebrity billionaire.

On the basis of the (correct) premise that the ´global war on drugs´ has failed, the GCDP makes a number of sensible proposals. It calls for: (a) an end to the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others; (b) governmental experimentation with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of citizens; (c) wide availability of health and treatment services for those in need; (d) dealing in a more humane and less repressive way with people involved in the lower echelons of the illegal drug business; (e) more investment in the prevention of drug use, especially by young people; (f) focusing repressive actions on violent criminal organizations in ways that undermine their power and reach, while also contributing to violence reduction; and (g) the transformation of the global drug prohibition regime with the goal of ensuring that the international conventions are interpreted and/or revised to accommodate robust experimentation with harm reduction, decriminalization and legal regulatory policies.

US and Mexican reactions

Unsurprisingly, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) at the White House rejected the GCDP´s recommendations on the spurious grounds that “making drugs more available – as this report suggests – will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe”. This rhetorical response does not do justice to the Commission´s arguments and policy recommendations, and it fails to acknowledge that the prevailing drug control strategies are patently not the answer to the problem at hand.

The 2011 World Drug Report, which was released by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) a couple of weeks after the GCDP launched its document, clearly shows that the global patterns of illicit narcotics production, trafficking and consumption have remained largely stable when compared to the previous five years – despite the continued spending of billions of dollars on counter-drug strategies by governments around the world.

A communiqué issued by the Technical Secretariat of Mexico´s National Security Council, however, carries more intellectual weight than the US rebuff. It says that since taking office in 2006 the administration of President Felipe Calderón has emphasized the “need to separate the debate about the legalization of drugs from that about combating insecurity. Legalization on its own would not do away with organized crime […]. It also would not strengthen our security and justice institutions. To think that organized crime in Mexico means just drug-trafficking ignores that organized crime is also involved in other crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion and robbery”.

In a telling way, this reply captures the dilemma of, and the polarization around, the current drug and crime control debates. Groups such as the GCDP put the emphasis on drug policy reform and achieving “harm reduction, decriminalization and legal regulatory policies”. While they recognize that law enforcement efforts against drug-trafficking organizations are important, they believe that “it is the illicit nature of the market that creates much of the market-related violence”. In other words, if the black narcotics market did not exist or if it were substituted for by a “legal and regulated commodity market”, there would not be the “same opportunities for organized crime to make vast profits, challenge the legitimacy of sovereign governments, and, in some cases, fund insurgency and terrorism”.

In contrast, the governments of countries heavily affected by criminal and drug-related violence, such as Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, take a different view. They see organized crime and violence stemming from, or fuelled by, drug-trafficking as the principal problems. They are also aware that criminal networks are often linked to, or embedded in, the structures of their states and societies, pursuing criminal business plans in cooperation with both elites and popular sectors in a myriad of ways that go far beyond involvement in the illicit drug trade.

This is why these governments, when they are serious about fighting organized crime (which is not always the case), prioritize strengthening the state´s security and justice institutions. By the same token, they are not convinced that drug policy reform as proposed by the GCDP is politically feasible in the foreseeable future – which is true; or that it would help them achieve the goal of protecting the institutional backbone of their societies from the massively corroding impact of multi-faceted and powerful organized crime and illegality.

The element of globalized organized crime

When thinking about drug policy reform we have to also think hard about organized crime control – on a global scale. Should proposals to reform drug policy, such as those made by the GCDP, be successful – and it has to be hoped that for the most part they would be – they would have to better account for the impact of globalized organized crime and offer a bolder vision of how to confront that challenge.

There is a rising tide of reporting on a plethora of forms of organized criminal activity around the world and the high levels of corruption and violence it engenders. Consider, for instance, the drug-fuelled bloodshed and political instability in Colombia, Mexico, Central America, West Africa and South and Central Asia. Mounting evidence about the seriousness of the problem has led some observers to conclude that today “criminals are in power”. Even the World Bank, which had hitherto shied away from systematically engaging with conflict, crime and violence, has been prompted to take a stance. “New threats – organized crime and trafficking, civil unrest due to global economic shocks, terrorism – have supplemented continued preoccupations with conventional war between and within countries”, says the 2011 World Development Report. “Drug and human trafficking, money laundering, illegal exploitation of natural resources and wildlife, counterfeiting, and violations of intellectual property rights are lucrative criminal activities, which facilitate the penetration by organized crime of already vulnerable sociopolitical, judicial, and security structures in developing countries”.

It should be added that globalized criminal organizations also actively finance election campaigns, intimidate or kill candidates for public office when they see them as a threat or obstacle to their business interests and run large-scale corruption and protection rackets inside governments. In the Bank´s analysis, these “external stresses […] are important factors in increasing the risk of violence” and reflect the “penetration of instability in global life. In our analysis, organized crime is today part of a huge and thriving global political economy of illegality.

The way forward: governance and coping mechanisms

The big challenge ahead is to rein in and deactivate the globalized criminal networks. Drug policy reform has to be part of this effort. However, it necessarily has to be complemented by a more comprehensive strategy, including a stronger focus on crime control – and above all on appropriate governance reforms. While the scope of the task is global, including at the level of the international drug control system, in many cases the entry point for policy would be at the national and local levels.

The principal aim of interventions should be to strengthen governance structures of varied types, i.e., formal/informal and state/non-state, to roll back criminal and illicit networks. In addition, interventions should focus on the different levels of public authority (from local to global). By and large, the top-down drug and crime policy approaches we have seen in the past have been unsuccessful. Future strategies are likely to produce results only if they contain a strong bottom-up element.

This multilevel focus on improving governance and strengthening the ability of people and communities to cope with the enormous pressures from globalized organized crime, as well as with serious problems related to drug use, could allow for broader, better informed and more inclusive policy scoping ´from below´ as well as ´from the top´. It appears that this is a fundamental prerequisite for both more effective and humane drug and crime policies.

Dr Markus Schultze-Kraft is Governance Team Leader and Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex (UK). For more than 15 years, he has worked on conflict prevention/resolution, policy analysis and human rights observation/protection in and from Latin America and the Caribbean – most recently as director of the Latin America and Caribbean program for the International Crisis Group. He holds a Doctorate in Politics from Oxford University. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

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