The ‘war on drugs’: A critical barrier to implementing the 2030 Agenda

by Natasha Horsfield. Twitter: @HealthPoverty

 As it currently stands, the dominant paradigm of global drug policy poses a critical barrier to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and yet there is little recognition in the development community of its cross cutting impacts on poverty, gender inequality, health and violence. The ‘war on drugs’, the model of strict prohibition and criminalisation of drug cultivation, production, trade, possession and use, has dominated global drug policy since the mid-20th century. This is despite a significant and consistent failure to achieve its policy aims of reducing drug supply and consumption.

As we move into the first phases of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, the continued pursuit of this model of drug policy will undermine the achievement of targets across over one third of the Goals. Take Goals 1 to end poverty and 2 to end hunger and achieve food security. Both are undermined by the prioritisation of punitive drug supply reduction policies such as forced crop eradication and poorly designed alternative development programmes, as well as the criminalisation and over-incarceration of people who use drugs and who engage in micro-trafficking. Many small scale farmers and marginalised women rely on the precarious illicit livelihoods provided by the drugs trade. These policy responses push them further into poverty and food insecurity, without offering viable sustainable alternatives.

In several ways women suffer disproportionately from the negative impacts of such policies, particularly where they are the female heads of household. Their increasing and disproportionately high rate of imprisonment for small scale, non-violent drug offenses and the unequal gendered impact of forced crop eradication, undermine women’s livelihood security, with wider repercussions for their families and communities. This reinforces gender inequality and will undoubtedly have a negative impact on efforts to achieve Goal 5 unless these impacts are taken into account and addressed. Forced prohibition also serves to reinforce the existing inequalities, stigma and social exclusion experienced by other vulnerable, marginalised populations such as indigenous communities and people who use drugs. This will undermine efforts towards Goal 10 to reduce inequality.

One of the SDGs likely to be most impacted by a continuation of the ‘war on drugs’ is Goal 3 on health. The prioritisation of heavy drug control over harm reduction services, and the criminalisation of people who use drugs, deters many from accessing health services both related and unrelated to their drug use.

This undeniably restricts efforts towards the Targets to strengthen the prevention and treatment of drug dependence, and to end epidemics of AIDS and combat hepatitis by 2030. Heavy national restrictions on controlled medicines such as morphine, despite international commitments to their availability for medical use, mean that 5.5 billion people (making up around 80% of the world’s population) live in countries with limited or no access to these medicines, including without treatment for severe pain. Achieving the Target of access to essential medicines for all seems simply unrealistic without addressing drug policies that serve to maintain this enormous gap in access.

SDG 16 to promote peaceful and inclusive societies is another goal heavily impacted by the war on drugs. Militarised law enforcement efforts to counter the drugs trade have fuelled violence in many areas, particularly impacting efforts now aimed at meeting the Target to reduce violence and related deaths. Prohibition continues to facilitate a valuable illicit drug market controlled by organised crime, accounting for around half of the proceeds from all transnational organised crime and up to 0.9% of global GDP. This equates to up to 5 times the annual global aid budget and is clearly a large barrier in efforts towards Target 16.4 to significantly reduce illicit financial flows and combat organised crime. The scale of corruption and bribery facilitated by these huge profits is also a significant problem for Target 16.5 to reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms.

Addressing the barriers posed by a war on drugs may also present opportunities. Reforming drug policies to better contribute to, rather than counteract, the achievement of the SDGs could also free up some of the much needed funding to fill the sizeable deficit required to realise the 2030 Agenda, as well as supporting efforts to meet the funding Targets under Goal 17.

Enforcing strict prohibition is estimated to cost $100 billion annually, an amount, which based on previous estimates by the Overseas Development Institute, could be used to pay for universal health coverage ($37 billion per year) or eliminate hunger and achieve food security ($50.2 billion per year). Given that factors underpinning engagement in the illicit drugs trade are, for many, rooted in experiences of socio-economic marginalisation, this may be a more efficient funding model for drug policy in more ways than one.  Many of the communities and people caught up in the drugs trade are the most vulnerable and marginalised in their societies; those left furthest behind by previous development initiatives. Surely addressing the barriers to meeting the needs of these groups will be essential in realising the ‘Leave No One Behind’ commitment at the centre of the 2030 Agenda.

There are now clear signs that the paradigm is shifting towards more sensible drug policies focused on state control and harm reduction in its broadest sense. These include strong commitments to the SDGs at the recent UNGASS on drugs and an additional four US states voting to legally regulate recreational marijuana at the most recent US elections, bringing the total to eight.

However, the failure to recognise the damage inflicted by prohibition or develop a strategy to address this at the UNGASS exposes the significant gap between international rhetoric and national policy reform on the issue. Additionally, as regulation spreads to countries with long histories of local production, which now seems more inevitable than ever before, it will be important that those who have been confined to the margins of an illicit drug economy are not excluded from the benefits of a potential legal trade. These communities will need strong allies on the international stage to ensure their needs are represented and their voices heard in both negotiations for drug policy reform and evaluations of progress to implement the sustainable development goals. The voice of the development community in the drug policy debate is needed now more than ever.

Find out more about how your organisation can join the debate on drug policy and the SDGs here or contact Natasha Horsfield .

Author Bio: Natasha Horsfield is Policy and Advocacy Officer at Health Poverty Action, an international development NGO that views poverty and poor health as issues of social, political and economic justice. She currently leads the organisation’s work promoting greater awareness and understanding of drug policy as a development issue, and developing collaborative responses within the development sector to improve coherence between illicit drug and development policy and programming to redress the harms of existing drug control for marginalised communities.


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