Rethink Drug Policy

Health Poverty Action supports a reassessment of the so called ‘war on drugs’.

The so called ‘war on drugs’ has failed. Most obviously, it has failed on its own terms: people still grow, produce and use drugs around the world. But more importantly, it has failed the poorest communities in the global south who suffer most as a direct result of this one-dimensional policy. A serious rethink is long overdue.

What is the War on Drugs?

The War on Drugs has dominated drug policy for at least 40 years. It was meant to reduce the supply of illicit drugs through strict prohibition, enforced by heavy handed – often militarised – law enforcement. It hasn’t worked.

In fact, the War on Drugs has often made things worse, fueling poverty, poor health and health services, environmental degradation and deforestation, corruption and violence. All of this is felt particularly acutely by women and marginalised communities.

The stories of violence in places like Mexico are now familiar, but they only tell half the story. Beyond those affected by direct violence, there are millions more being forced into poverty because of these misguided policies.

Whilst we are told that governments want to end poverty, stop corruption and ensure access to healthcare and essential medicines – most obviously in the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals – the War on Drugs massively undermines these efforts.  

Current approaches to measuring the ‘success’ of drug policies also fail to measure the impacts of these policies on the wellbeing of vulnerable communities, obscuring the true impacts of the war on drugs.  

The development community has typically overlooked the issue of drug policy and been absent in the communities these policies affect most negatively. We need development organisations and governments to see drug policy in the same way as climate change, trade and tax – as a cross cutting issue that affects all aspects of development: women’s rights, democracy, health, livelihoods and economic development.

Fortunately, things are starting the change – slowly. World leaders like Kofi Annan, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the UN have all brought forward alternatives to the war on drugs. What we need to do now is make sure that these proposals are given the financial and political support they need. To do that we need the public and NGOs to put pressure on governments to take drug policy and development seriously.

Watch our animation exploring how global drug policies affect ordinary people around the world:



What’s the alternative?

We want to see drug policies that put poor and marginalised people first. This means putting end to prohibition, militarisation, criminalisation and forced crop eradication, and instead designing policies that focus on reducing harm, prioritise sustainable development, and ensure peace and security.

To do this we will need greater involvement of the development community and new indicators to measure how drug policies affect poor and marginalized communities and their development, providing strong evidence and expertise for the most effective policies with sustainable development at their core.

There are already good examples in the global south to signpost a way forward. Bolivia’s coca control programme  has prioritised reducing the harm caused my militarised crop eradication, rather than simply stopping drug trafficking and production.

This programme is a success because it focuses on sustainable livelihoods and community development, investing in social services and public infrastructure, and actively involves the local community in planning and implementing the projects. Crucially, they allow a subsistence amount of coca leaf to be grown – for consumption and sale to the legal market – giving people support and income security to switch to other livelihoods and empowering farmers. It’s a successful alternative to the failed war on drugs.

This project can’t be replicated everywhere, of course. But that’s exactly the point: we need context-specific policies and projects that prioritise sustainable development for the most vulnerable communities affected by the drugs trade and the ‘War on Drugs’. These policies and projects need to include local communities in design and implementation making sure they are able to participate. They need to ensure public infrastructure and public services and be integrated with national development plans and programmes. Doing this won’t be easy, but it’s essential to begin exploring successful alternatives.

Read our full report: Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs is harming the world’s poorest

See what changes we were advocating for in our Policy Recommendations for UNGASS 2016


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This work is supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. Find out more about their work to address the War on Drugs.


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