Global Commission On Drug Policy (5)

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4. Establish better metrics, indicators and goals to measure progress.

The current system of measuring success in the drug policy field is fundamentally flawed.34 The impact of most drug strategies are currently assessed by the level of crops eradicated, arrests, seizures and punishments applied to users, growers and dealers. In fact, arresting and punishing drug users does little to reduce levels of drug use, taking out low-level dealers simply creates a market opportunity for others, and even the largest and most successful operations against organized criminals (that take years to plan and implement) have been shown to have, at best, a marginal and short- lived impact on drug prices and availability. Similarly, eradication of opium, cannabis or coca crops merely displaces illicit cultivation to other areas.

A new set of indicators is needed to truly show the outcomes of drug policies, according to their harms or benefits for individuals and communities – for example, the number of victims of drug market-related violence and intimidation; the level of corruption generated by drug markets; the level of petty crime committed by dependent users; levels of social and economic development in communities where drug production, selling or consumption are concentrated; the level of drug dependence in communities; the level of overdose deaths; and the level of HIV or hepatitis C infection among drug users. Policymakers can and should articulate and measure the outcome of these objectives.

The expenditure of public resources should therefore be focused on activities that can be shown to have a positive impact on these objectives. In the current circumstances in most countries, this would mean increased investment in health and social programs, and improved targeting of law enforcement resources to address the violence and corruption associated with drug markets.35 In a time of fiscal austerity, we can no longer afford to maintain multibillion dollar investments that have largely symbolic value.

5. Challenge, rather than reinforce, common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence.

Currently, too many policymakers reinforce the idea that all people who use drugs are ‘amoral addicts’, and all those involved in drug markets are ruthless criminal masterminds. The reality is much more complex. The United Nations makes a conservative estimate that there are currently 250 million illicit drug users in the world, and that there are millions more involved in cultivation, production and distribution. We simply cannot treat them all as criminals.

To some extent, policymakers’ reluctance to acknowledge this complexity is rooted in their understanding of public opinion on these issues. Many ordinary citizens do have genuine fears about the negative impacts of illegal drug markets, or the behavior of people dependent on, or under the influence of, illicit drugs. These fears are grounded in some general assumptions about people who use drugs and drug markets, that government and civil society experts need to address by increasing awareness of some established (but largely unrecognized) facts. For example:

  • The majority of people who use drugs do not fit the stereotype of the ‘amoral and pitiful addict’. Of the estimated 250 million drug users worldwide, the United Nations estimates that less than 10 percent can be classified as dependent, or ‘problem drug users’.36
  • Most people involved in the illicit cultivation of coca, opium poppy, or cannabis are small farmers struggling to make a living for their families. Alternative livelihood opportunities are better investments than destroying their only available means of survival.
  • The factors that influence an individual’s decision to start using drugs have more to do with fashion, peer influence, and social and economic context, than with the drug’s legal status, risk of detection, or government prevention messages.37,38
  • The factors that contribute to the development of problematic or dependent patterns of use have more to do with childhood trauma or neglect, harsh living conditions, social marginalization, and emotional problems, rather than moral weakness or hedonism.39
  • It is not possible to frighten or punish someone out of drug dependence, but with the right sort of evidence-based treatment, dependent users can change their behavior and be active and productive members of the community.40
  • Most people involved in drug trafficking are petty dealers and not the stereotyped gangsters from the movies – the vast majority of people imprisoned for drug dealing or trafficking are ‘small fish’ in the operation (often coerced into carrying or selling drugs), who can easily be replaced without disruption to the supply.41,42

A more mature and balanced political and media discourse can help to increase public awareness and understanding. Specifically, providing a voice to representatives of farmers, users, families and other communities affected by drug use and dependence can help to counter myths and misunderstandings.

6. Countries that continue to invest mostly in a law enforcement approach (despite the evidence) should focus their repressive actions on violent organized crime and drug traffickers, in order to reduce the harms associated with the illicit drug market.

The resources of law enforcement agencies can be much more effectively targeted at battling the organized crime groups that have expanded their power and reach on the back of drug market profits. In many parts of the world, the violence, intimidation and corruption perpetrated by these groups is a significant threat to individual and national security and to democratic institutions, so efforts by governments and law enforcement agencies to curtail their activities remain essential.

However, there is a need to review our tactics in this fight. There is a plausible theory put forward by MacCoun and Reuter43 that suggests that supply reduction efforts are most effective in a new and undeveloped market, where the sources of supply are controlled by a small number of trafficking organizations. Where these conditions exist, appropriately designed and targeted law enforcement operations have the potential to stifle the emergence of new markets. We face such a situation now in West Africa. On the other hand, where drug markets are diverse and well-established, preventing drug use by stopping supply is not a realistic objective.



In just a few years, West Africa has become a major transit and re-packaging hub for cocaine following a strategic shift of Latin American drug syndicates toward the European market. Profiting from weak governance, endemic poverty, instability and ill-equipped police and judicial institutions, and bolstered by the enormous value of the drug trade, criminal networks have infiltrated governments, state institutions and the military. Corruption and money laundering, driven by the drug trade, pervert local politics and skew local economies.

A dangerous scenario is emerging as narco-traffic threatens to metastasize into broader political and security challenges. Initial international responses to support regional and national action have not been able to reverse this trend. New evidence44 suggests that criminal networks are expanding operations and strengthening their positions through new alliances, notably with armed groups. Current responses need to be urgently scaled up and coordinated under West African leadership, with international financial and technical support. Responses should integrate law enforcement and judicial approaches with social, development and conflict prevention policies – and they should involve governments and civil society alike.

We also need to recognize that it is the illicit nature of the market that creates much of the market-related violence – legal and regulated commodity markets, while not without problems, do not provide the same opportunities for organized crime to make vast profits, challenge the legitimacy of sovereign governments, and, in some cases, fund insurgency and terrorism.

This does not necessarily mean that creating a legal market is the only way to undermine the power and reach of drug trafficking organizations. Law enforcement strategies can explicitly attempt to manage and shape the illicit market by, for example, creating the conditions where small-scale and private ‘friendship network’ types of supply can thrive, but cracking down on larger-scale operations that involve violence or inconvenience to the general public. Similarly, the demand for drugs from those dependent on some substances (for example, heroin) can be met through medical prescription programs that automatically reduce demand for the street alternative. Such strategies can be much more effective in reducing market-related violence and harms than futile attempts to eradicate the market entirely.

On the other hand, poorly designed drug law enforcement practices can actually increase the level of violence, intimidation and corruption associated with drug markets. Law enforcement agencies and drug trafficking organizations can become embroiled in a kind of ‘arms race’, in which greater enforcement efforts lead to a similar increase in the strength and violence of the traffickers.

In this scenario, the conditions are created in which the most ruthless and violent trafficking organizations thrive. Unfortunately, this seems to be what we are currently witnessing in Mexico and many other parts of the world.



A group of academics and public health experts based in British Columbia have conducted a systematic review of evidence45 relating to the impact of increased law enforcement on drug market-related violence (for example, armed gangs fighting for control of the drug trade, or homicide and robberies connected to the drug trade).
In multiple US locations, as well as in Sydney, Australia, the researchers found that increased arrests and law enforcement pressures on drug markets were strongly associated with increased homicide rates and other violent crimes. Of all the studies examining the effect of increased law enforcement on drug market violence, 91 percent concluded that increased law enforcement actually increased drug market violence. The researchers concluded that:

“The available scientific evidence suggests that increasing the intensity of law enforcement interventions to disrupt drug markets is unlikely to reduce drug gang violence. Instead, the existing evidence suggests that drug-related violence and high homicide rates are likely a natural consequence of drug prohibition and that increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced methods of disrupting drug distribution networks may unintentionally increase violence.”46

In the UK also, researchers have examined the effects of policing on drug markets, noting that: 

“Law enforcement efforts can have a significant negative impact on the nature and extent of harms associated with drugs by (unintentionally) increasing threats to public health and public safety, and by altering both the behavior of individual drug users and the stability and operation of drug markets (e.g. by displacing dealers and related activity elsewhere or increasing the incidence of violence as displaced dealers clash with established ones).”47