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New ideas in drugs war

April will see a UN General Assembly Special Session on the drugs trade take place April will see a UN General Assembly Special Session on the drugs trade take place COUPERFIELD
30 Mar
Next month will see a pivotal UN summit review strategies to combat the criminal drugs trade. Could the new Sustainable Development Goals lead the way?

The so-called ‘war on drugs’ has become a lightening rod for all sides of the political spectrum, conjuring images of heavily armed gangs and aggressive military actions.

‘The question now is not whether to end the war on drugs, but what to replace its failed policies with,’ insists Dr John Collins, coordinator of the LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project and editor of a report recommending adopting the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed at the 70th UN General Assembly meeting, as a new core strategy for combating the drugs trade.

‘The path to drug peace becomes clearer if we look to the SDGs as the way to address the root causes of many socioeconomic problems, one of which is problematic drug use,’ says Collins. ‘A distinction remains between drug policy and everything else. You need to focus on the things that actually matter for human development, making sure the development goals are prioritised above drug control. This is not a supply reduction issue or demand reduction issue – it’s first and foremost a sustainable development issue. If states pursue prohibitionist policies in the absence of development and political integration, the result is usually instability, violence and failures on drug control goals.’

The problem is we haven’t had any experimentation around policy, it’s just prohibition and more prohibition

A UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs takes place 19 to 21 April, a meeting originally scheduled for 2019, but brought forward at the insistence of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia. ‘When member states come together at the UNGASS,’ explains Michael Cox, Director of LSE IDEAS, ‘they won’t have to look further than Colombia to see that the current strategy is well and truly broken. The country has fought a long and desperate war, at a dreadful cost to its political structures, security services and population.’ While Colombia’s recent peace agreement with FARC, the country’s largest rebel group, gives it the opportunity to put its decades-long internal conflict to rest, Cox also sees it as giving the country ‘the opportunity to move beyond the failed strategies of the past and move towards a sustainable development model’.

While Collins admits the UNGASS isn’t likely to see any revolutionary agreements, he hopes it can be the start of a radical change in how this issue can been seen in relation to wider discussions of development. He anticipates a ‘fracturing’ of policies, with countries adopting different strategies.

‘The problem is we haven’t had any experimentation around policy, it’s just prohibition and more prohibition,’ he says. ‘The Latin American governments are very clearly saying, “We’re not continuing the status quo, because it’s just too harmful to us,” and countries like the United States, potentially Canada, and Uruguay, are saying, “We’re going to go ahead and legalise cannabis”. So there is a sense that we’re all pursuing the same goal, but we’re going to do it in different ways going forward.’

This was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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