There is a clear link between drugs and development. For example, problematic drug use and drug dependence often occur among people who are economically vulnerable, have suffered trauma and/or are socially marginalised. Furthermore, involvement in the illicit drug markets absorbs people and resources that would otherwise be employed in the licit economy.

Cultivation of coca in Bolivia

The crops which form the plant base for the production of opium, heroin, morphine and cocaine are predominantly cultivated by subsistence farmers in some of the most under-developed areas of the planet. These regions are usually the sites of ongoing armed conflicts and political instability. Traditional attempts to stem the flow of drugs from production zones have concentrated on the forced eradication of crops destined for the illicit market, such as opium poppy and the coca plant. This has led to an increase in poverty, forced migration, starvation, and an exacerbation of armed conflicts. Meanwhile, the crops have continued to be cultivated. Drug control measures have also, at times, driven sections of the population to support insurgent groups or seek employment with criminal gangs, further undermining security and good governance. Some have therefore referred to drug policies as a way to “criminalise poverty”.

Prison in Thailand where most people are incarcerated for drugs offences

Drug policies should no longer aim to reduce the scale of the illicit drug market, but should aspire instead to reduce the harms associated with these markets through a development-oriented approach. Efforts should promote a positive change in the lives of people involved in drug production, couriering, trafficking and consumption in order to provide them with viable alternatives to the illicit drug trade. New indicators should be established to measure the success of drug policies, based on the Human Development Index.

Development assistance should be made unconditional on reductions in illicit crops, ensure that no eradication is carried out unless small-farmer households have adopted viable and sustainable livelihoods, and ensure that interventions are properly sequenced. Organisations comprised of subsistence farmers growing crops destined for the illicit market should be recognised, should take part in debates and decision making at all levels, with their own governments, donors and the United Nations. Interventions should comply with the aims of human rights protection, conflict resolution, poverty alleviation, human security and respect for traditional culture and values.

We also advocate for mitigating factors to be included in criminal sentencing guidelines against micro-traffickers, so that those involved in the drug trade out of dire economic necessities (mostly drug couriers) are no longer imposed disproportionate prison sentences.