From left to right: Isidore Obot, Daniel Mejía Londono, Alejandro Madrazo Lajous and Nicola Palmer. Photo courtesy of Kasia Malinowska.

The room was full at “How the war on drugs impedes economic development,” an event organised in New York City by Open Society Foundation’s Global Drug Policy Program in partnership with the Permanent Mission of Colombia to the United Nations and the Permanent Mission of Mexico to the United Nations. The intention of the event was to foster open dialogue and debate about the links between drug policy and development, particularly in preparation for joint advocacy at the 2016 UNGASS. Speakers discussed the costs of the war on drugs and the negative effect prohibitionist drug policies have had on the development of countries in the global south.

Alejandro Madrazo Lajous (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica) argued that we have underestimated the cost of the war on drugs by excluding constitutional costs from the tally. These costs arise from undermining key constitutional commitments that exist in political communities, and have had a very real impact on day-to-day life in Mexico. The curtailment of rights, for example, is a constitutional cost that is borne when certain groups give up some of their rights. This is apparent when fighting the war on drugs, as it is not uncommon for drug offenders (particularly low-level drug traffickers) to be denied due process and therefore not receive all the legal rights they are owed. A second constitutional cost is the conflation of functions, such as using the military to do police work. The real impact of this cost is most evident in the lethality index, a ratio that demonstrates how lethal the force used by law enforcement is by calculating how many people were killed compared to how many people were injured by the police. The lethality index in Mexico has risen to levels similar to war zones since the military were employed as policemen, and now stands at an average of 7.3! When altering the relationship between the military and citizens, the specific training of the military and how it contrasts with that of police is often not considered. Since the military are trained to kill the enemy rather than do police work, this example of how constitutional costs play out on the street should not be unexpected. Changing core political commitments in order to fight the war on drugs is problematic not only because this essentially leads to a change in the identity of communities, but also because they are often changed without any explicit discussion or acknowledgement.  Fundamentally altering the constitutional commitments agreed upon in a society without making an active and inclusive choice to do so is simply unacceptable.

Daniel Mejía Londono (Universidad de los Andes and Research Centre on Drugs and Security) asserted that prohibitionist drug policies pass the cost of the war on drugs from consumer countries to producer and transit countries. In a regulated market, consumers would bear a great deal of the costs associated with illicit substances, as prices would take into consideration externalities. However, in a prohibitionist regime, higher prices only arise as a result of the supply reduction efforts in producer and transit countries. Hence, producer and transit countries take on a great deal of the work not only in supply reduction, but also in demand reduction by raising the price of substances. This is done at a very high cost to the main engines of economic growth and development, namely human and physical capital accumulation and institutional stability. Significantly increased violence, environmental and health costs, loss of confidence in the state, and direct fiscal expenditures are all associated with prohibitionist drug policies in the global south. Importantly, in addition to hampering economic development, supply reduction tactics often do little to curb the drug trade. In the case of aerial spraying for example, only about 0.15 hectare of coca is actually removed from the drug trade for every hectare sprayed, meaning that a hectare must be sprayed between 7 and 10 times before it is truly destroyed! Resources used on ineffective drug strategies, which have serious negative consequences on the environment and on the health and economic wellbeing of farmers and communities, could be used for programmes that promote socio-economic development – a point that is especially salient when one considers that Colombia spends more than two times what it does on social programmes (which include health, education, and everything in between) on fighting the war on drugs.

Speaking about Africa, Isidore Obot (University of Uyo) cautioned that nations are headed towards making the same mistakes, and bearing the same costs, as countries in Latin America. Although heroin and cocaine were originally limited to trafficking in Africa, consumption of these substances is now a growing problem. Unfortunately, nothing effective is being done in response. The focus remains on law enforcement, with success measured by the number of arrests and seizures. Policies are punitive, with all use and possession being criminalised. Rather than being driven by evidence of effectiveness, polices are designed to meet external considerations and optimise foreign relations. This is most evident by the lack of adequate access to treatment, while those that are available are run by psychiatric hospitals or churches and are abundant with human rights abuses. Harm reduction is nearly nonexistent and has no support from governments in the region. Although there is often general agreement about changes that must be made, such as the implementation of effective prevention and treatment, little is actually done. For a continent that is already confronted with a myriad of obstacles to economic development, ineffective drug policies are a problem Africa does not need.

Representing UNDP, Nicola Palmer stated that their stance on the drug policy discussion is that all efforts to respond to the world drug problem must be in line with the three UN drug conventions, but also with human rights. UNDP advocates for rebalancing the policies of member states to emphasize interventions that target effective prevention, treatment and social integration. Rather than an exclusive focus on demand and supply reduction, integrated responses to the drug problem are necessary. The UNGASS presents a crucial opportunity to refocus international drug policies in this way. Therefore, Ms. Palmer stated, we must capitalise on the preparations for the UNGASS to make the links between drug policy and development clearer.

As the UNGASS approaches, there has been significant focus on connecting drug policy to other issues, especially to economic development. We know a great deal about the harms of current drug policies on economic development, both in terms of direct costs (such as the resources spent on these policies and the elimination of crucial sources of income without creating viable replacements) and indirect costs (by escalating violence, destroying land resources, and damaging the health of affected communities). Understanding these linkages is crucial, but as was revealed in the question and answer session, a great deal of work remains. How the development and drug policy communities can work together in preparation for the UNGASS remains to be seen. One thing is certain – development of life in the global south cannot occur without changes in current drug policies.

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