Following the UNGASS 2016, policy shifts beyond the “War On Drugs” open new opportunities for innovation and experimentation in drug policy reform.  The Global Initiative explores the likely impact on criminal markets and communities.

The debate around what is generally termed “harm reduction” – treating drug abuse as a health policy issue rather than a law enforcement one – has been a central feature of discussions around drug policy for at least the last decade. It is now gathering significant momentum as countries, most notably in Latin America and Europe, have embraced its core tenants.

In the run-up to the 2016 Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) discussion centred on the concept of “harm reduction” and how it is interpreted. While this may not have lead to fundamental change in the overall drug control framework itself, it has and will continue to stretch the boundaries of the possible within the current international drug control regime.

One concern, however, is whether that widening space for debate could come at a cost: by shifting the discussion of health policy approaches at the “front end” where drugs are consumed, but returning to a set of established law enforcement practices further down the “supply chain”. Indeed, that may be part of a subtle concession to the “hard liners”: more talk of health approaches balanced by harder law enforcement responses. While the latter may not necessarily be wrong in its entirety, it harks back to a language of the past at a time when there is an urgent need to consider a wider set of alternatives. Evidence and experience has shown that a broader set of harms that are resulting from the growth of criminal networks, including prolific violence in certain states, are only exacerbated by hard line criminal justice and militarised approaches. If the full harms of drug trafficking and use are to be addressed, then a broader understanding of ‘harm reduction’ must be introduced.

In the space provided by the rapidly developing discussion around development and security, symbolised most clearly by the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development 2030 (ASD2030), we are missing an opportunity if a multi-dimensional harm framework is not also applied to the issue of organised crime.

This programme attempts to provide a sober assessment of whether current programmes around what is generally termed “harm reduction” are in fact working. It then considers the possibility of widening the scope of the harm reduction concept to the drugs supply chain in its entirety, and to organised crime itself and considers the policy implications of doing so. Just as in the case of the drug use debate, this does not mean a softer approach on organised crime, but only that a wider set of policy alternatives beyond a narrow law enforcement are required if we are to succeed.

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