Our Perspectives

The case for a better approach to drug control policy

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coca farmers in BoliviaMen working in the coca field in Bolivia. Photo: Ryan Anderton

The relationship between drug control policy and human development is complex and multifaceted. Both share a common objective to reduce drug-related harms. Yet drug control, human rights, public health and human development agendas often exist in isolation from each other. Policies aimed at prohibition and punishment form the international approach to drug control. Yet, there is ample evidence of the negative consequences of these policies.

For the many farmers affected by poverty, conflict, and insecurity, cultivating illicit drug crops is a viable livelihoods option, yet international drug treaties ban the cultivation of these crops and require their eradication.

The enforcement of these bans and eradication efforts have in many cases negatively affected the public health and human rights of people living in poverty. They have destroyed the livelihoods of those who depend on cultivating and selling drugs to survive and forcibly displaced populations from areas where illicit crops are grown. The herbicide used in aerial fumigation of illicit coca crops has been associated with physical and mental health problems. In many instances, these bans do not necessarily lead to reduced cultivation or consumption of illicit drugs, as the cultivators and traffickers simply move on to other areas.

Poverty can push people into the drug trade. Becoming a dealer or courier is often seen as a viable option for the disadvantaged, including unemployed youth, indigenous populations, and marginalized groups for whom there are few opportunities to make a living. People who commit minor drug-related offenses or use drugs are easy targets for police seeking to meet arrest targets. As a result, millions of people are locked up and processed because of minor involvement in the drug trade. Some languish in prisons for months, or even years, without being charged or convicted. For poor women, imprisonment can mean that their infants and young children will have to stay with them for all or part of their sentence.

There are also important public health effects that merit consideration. People who inject drugs are at higher risk of contracting HIV and viral hepatitis. Evidence shows how harm reduction interventions (distribution of sterile syringes, drug dependence treatment, and HIV testing and counseling) have prevented new cases of HIV and viral hepatitis. However, punitive laws, policies and practices limit, and sometimes exclude altogether, people who use drugs from access to these services.

Despite clear evidence of how drug control policies can impede human development, the potential impacts of drug control on the health and human rights of the poor and most marginalized have not received sufficient attention. The success of drug control efforts has mainly been measured by specific, narrow metrics aimed at reducing the supply and demand of drugs, including hectares of illicit crops eradicated, volumes of drugs seized, and numbers of people arrested, convicted and incarcerated.

For a more development sensitive approach to drug control policies, we need to measure the underlying conditions of poverty, inequality and insecurity which often drive people to cultivate drug crops and enter the drug trade. Specific guidelines on human rights should be developed to guide the development of rights-based drug control measures. The UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs in 2016 presents a key opportunity to address the alignment of drug control policy with human rights, public health and human development objectives.

Javier Sagredo Tenu Avafia Governance and peacebuilding Health Sustainable development Poverty reduction and inequality

UNDP Around the world