As the UN moves ahead with the next decade of drug policy, combating drug trafficking will remain high on the international agenda. While states largely still agree to address this challenge together, the world around them is changing and the risk is that they will stick to the same old ways of doing business. This UN International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, commonly known as World Drug Day, we ask whether the international community has learnt anything from the last 10 years of flawed drug-policy responses.

In March 2019, the UN rubber-stamped the next 10 years of international drug policy at the Ministerial Segment on drug policy at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna. Although it is technically a consensus document, the short ministerial declaration agreed upon by states sanctions a way forward that is likely to produce a number of outcomes around the world. Responses will become more divergent as regions and countries (as well as cities and provinces) take their own different approaches to drug markets.

While 2019 was significant as the 10-year target date of the 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action on countering the world drug problem, its policymaking significance became somewhat overshadowed by the 2016 UN General Assembly special session on the world drug problem (UNGASS 2016). Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia had asked for the 2019 high-level meeting to be brought forward to 2016 owing to the urgency of drug-related issues in Latin America, and the session produced an outcome document with policy guidance on wide-ranging problems.

As a result, the recent 2019 meeting lost some of its clout as a policymaking moment, but some steam was also lost due to gridlock over where drug policy should go. In 2016, the UNGASS outcome document was hailed by many as a stepping stone towards a more comprehensive perspective on drug policy – one that encompasses human rights, public health and development. Not soon after its adoption, a number of states that prefer the status quo began to lobby against this wider policy focus. This forced governments to seek out where they have common ground in 2019 and resulted in a brief ministerial statement that encourages the implementation of all recommendations from 2009 onwards with a tacit understanding that states and groups of states will choose their own directions going forward.

In the next 10 years, then, observers will see states employing diverse responses and policies domestically, bilaterally and internationally (take, for instance, Canada’s stated commitment to stop the illegal movement of its legal cannabis products across borders). Playing by the rules of the international system while operating outside of it, or reforming it, makes for complicated policy choices, and favours deference to the old ways of doing business, because decades of policy and the UN treaties point this way. 

The more things change …

One area where states have not strayed too far from a common position is in the commitment to combat drug trafficking. With some exceptions, even the most liberal proponents of regulation still emphasize the need to tackle trafficking and organized crime.  What is meant by this, however, is not always the same depending on whom you speak to. Some government actors view this as an opportunity to reinforce law-enforcement approaches, often in the context of populist political regimes. And this is happening in an era of growing drug production in the Andes and Central Asia, with enormous implications for several regions, such as East Africa, as recently documented by the GI. At the same time, civil society has not fully grappled with the fact that law enforcement will continue to address organized criminal activity and, in this, drug-policy changes will not fully replace the role of law enforcement in this larger equation.

Long-standing links between organized crime and drug markets will not disappear quickly, but they will shift as drug policies change and criminal groups adapt, and in fact this calls for more nuanced law-enforcement responses. This is now a debate that civil society should actively engage in. The focus here must be to emphasize that responding to organized crime requires a spread of policy tools, including development, political engagement, civic activism and law enforcement. Failing to approach the challenge in this way will result in, and indeed in some places has become, a new ‘war on drugs’, although packaged differently.

When considering drug policy and organized crime, several issues intersect, pointing towards increasing complexity over the next 10 years. Though many countries now reject the terminology, a war on drugs, now framed as fighting drug trafficking or organized crime, will continue. It is likely that approaches by individual countries will be defined by responses to trafficking ranging somewhere along a continuum from drug war to ‘drug war lite’. But, what this approach will have in common is to continue to emphasize enforcement responsibility towards the source and trafficking regions. The result will be a lost opportunity in the discussion: the more things change, the more they remain the same, at least in terms of global law enforcement.

The cannabis case

Lessons from the unfolding cannabis debate will, for better or worse, reverberate through future drug policy discussions for some time. At the UN, states are now discussing and even fighting over cannabis regulation, which was largely ignored in 2016. At the same time, this debate is largely binary, rather than addressing the nuanced changes that cannabis regulation will bring.

Nevertheless, disagreements at the UN will not stop regulation. Cannabis is legal in some form in over 30 countries and in 33 states in the US. In the western hemisphere, Canada and the entire west coast of the US have legalized recreational cannabis, and Mexico is considering what its regulation will look like. The patchwork nature of cannabis regulation impacts a range of issues, such as access to banking, competing legal frameworks and new smuggling dynamics. These have implications for shifts in illicit markets – from small-scale dealers to cartel business models. Some of these markets have moved from total prohibition to large-scale corporate markets, which raises questions about inclusion of groups like cannabis farmers and others for whom cannabis cultivation is a livelihood strategy. It is possible that regulation occurs while the underlying dynamics of exclusion persist, prompting new grey or illicit market strategies, and possibly reproducing the same policy responses that perpetuate structural inequalities. In this way, cannabis regulation has implications that span domestic and transnational crime dynamics, development objectives, health agendas and social exclusion paradigms.

New era, old policy?

The cannabis example alone clearly exemplifies a need for strategic policymaking in a shifting environment. As some states consider smarter drug policies, focused on the individual and society, they will have to consider policy responses to trafficking and production, and not just drug use.

There is a risk that the ‘gains’ to be made in combating drug trafficking will still be sought where the vulnerable are easier to target, particularly in countries where the drug response remains connected to political mobilization, entrenched bureaucratic interests and plain institutional inertia – simply ‘the way things have always been done’. As the next major shift in drug policy occurs, it will be critical to assess policies, including law-enforcement responses, for their efficacy and their ability to ‘do no harm’.

Some governments could be taking a risk trying to balance a public-health approach to drug use with increased efforts to combat drug trafficking without defining what that approach will entail in the next 10 years. If new ideas are not put on the table, they could continue to build an international regime based on outdated approaches to trafficking and production. This will only perpetuate many of the same negative consequences, such as increased revenue for organized-criminal groups, the violence and corruption associated with drug markets, newly emerging substances to circumvent new restrictions, and finding solutions where the lowest hanging fruit is perceived to be – at the bottom end of the drug economy in excluded and marginalized communities.

If combating trafficking remains a numbers game related to seizures and arrests, governments will not be learning from their own stocktaking of challenges over the last 10 years. New psychoactive substances continue to appear at alarming rates, confounding front-line responses, from law enforcement to health agencies. (In one afternoon in April 2018, more than 70 people overdosed in one US city from fentanyl-laced synthetic marijuana.) A widening array of products, production and trafficking methods will continue to develop alongside shifts in policy and restrictions. Drug production and trafficking are intimately linked to wider socio-political landscapes and, in many areas, are connected to the governance dynamics of organized-crime groups. Responding to this requires a nuanced approach that draws from a broad spectrum of policy responses, but which must seek to reduce harms to the most vulnerable and build resilience in affected communities, including through better enforcement. A new discussion on understanding and tackling organized crime in the context of several decisive shifts in global drug markets is now overdue. Statements to the effect that ‘we must now focus on organized crime’, as overall drug policy evolves, miss the mark and risk replicating the mistakes of the past. Governments will need to continue to grow the evidence base around which policies are effective and continue to widen the toolkit of responses to illicit drug markets and organized crime more generally as drug markets change.

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Summer Walker

Summer Walker is a Senior Analyst and New York Representative at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. She has worked in New York and Berlin for international NGOs, development agencies and research institutes, and has published papers on drug policy, human trafficking, and organized crime. Prior to this, she worked at United Nations University in New York, running a drug policy project. Ms. Walker’s wider background is in human rights and development, and she explores the impacts of organized crime and associated responses in these areas.

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