In 2012, Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, referred to current drug control efforts as something akin to riding a stationary bicycle. "One keeps pedalling, pedalling and pedalling, and making great efforts,(...) only to find out one hasn’t really moved”. Today, as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) releases its latest figures on the drugs market, Santos’ words ring particularly true. In fact, the 2018 World Drug Report shows some countries are fruitlessly pedalling faster.

Between 2012-2016, the amount of drugs seized by law enforcement authorities increased noticeably. By around 60% when it comes to cocaine, opioids and amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS); and a whopping 150% when it comes to ‘new psychoactive substances’ (NPS). Cannabis, an outlier in this trend, showed a slight downtick of roughly 10%.

If the ‘war on drugs’ is failing, it is not because of a lack of determination or of resources poured into it. Drug control efforts are estimated to cost over $100 billion/year globally. Only a week ago, a report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction concluded that the multi-billion counternarcotics strategy to eradicate the poppy market in Afghanistan had largely been unsuccessful. Even worse, these interventions have left a trail of devastation disproportionately affecting people who use drugs, small growers and other people in situations of vulnerability.

This failure is not the exception, but the norm. Drug control strategies of which the main goal is the eradication of drug markets are structurally pitted for defeat. Even countries that have gone to criminal lengths to achieve this chimeric aim are not even close to a “drug-free world”.

And the 2018 World Drug Report makes it fairly obvious. If the 2017 edition acknowledged that drug markets were “thriving”, this year’s edition shows they are actually excelling and diversifying. Drug use has never been higher, estimated at 275 million people. Cocaine and opium production have reached new heights, exceeding 1,400 and 10,000 tons respectively. A bourgeoning deadly market for high-potency opioids, such as fentanyl and analogues, has expanded. 72 new psychoactive substances (NPS) entered the market in 2016. And illicit drugs make up 48% of crypto-drug markets listings, despite regular, albeit relatively futile crackdowns.

More importantly, the Report shows the global drug control regime is failing in many other ways, which are more relevant to the “health and welfare of humankind” (the stated aim of the UN drug conventions).

Drug-related deaths are soaring, increasing by a dramatic 60% in just 15 years. In North America, the crisis is ravaging communities. It is estimated that more than 63,600 people died of drug overdoses only in the United States. The figures for Canada are also heart-rending, but contrary to its southern neighbour, public authorities and civil society are taking urgent remedial actions, such as expanding overdose prevention services.

While the Canadian government and others have shown commitment for harm reduction, this is far from being the case in most parts of the world. The Report shows that only 79 countries (a mere 40% of UN Member States) have implemented both needle and syringe programmes (NSP) and opioid substitution therapy (OST). This dearth of coverage stokes the HIV epidemic among people who inject drugs. In some regions of the world, HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs might exceed 50%.

Arrests, prosecution and incarceration for minor drug offences continue to be the norm, disproportionately affecting people in situations of vulnerability. The Report’s numbers show, for instance, how women are hit significantly harder by drug-related imprisonment. Globally, 35% of women in prison would be serving sentences for drug-related offences. And we know these women are often arrested for performing low-level, high-risk tasks in the illicit market; often under coercion.

This dire picture suggest that the proverbial bicycle is not really static. It has, in fact, been taking us in the wrong direction for decades. And yet governments keep pedalling...

The voices against this destructive inertia, however, are becoming louder. Every year, on the 26 June, the Support. Don’t Punish campaign mobilises thousands of people in hundreds of cities to “reclaim” the message of this international day. On this sixth Global Day of Action, activities will take place in a record-breaking 210 cities in 98 countries, making it the largest international demonstration for drug policy reform.

As the Report figures reflect, ignoring these deafening calls comes at a great human cost. In 2019, as the international community will meet again to discuss the future of global drug control, it would be negligent for countries not to meaningfully reflect on these impacts and change course. The harms of drug policy are not a fatality. In fact, many countries have advanced in new directions with positive results, as explained by the UN Secretary General.

New drug policies will need new indicators. And these new metrics need to drastically depart from the merely procedural. We need to know how many countries have improved the proportionality of sentencing for drug offences. Which countries integrate gender-specific provisions into their drug strategies and practices? How many extrajudicial killings are taking place in the name of drug control? How are countries integrating palliative care into their drug strategies? What evidence-based approaches are governments deploying to prevent overdoses?

In short, we need a people-centred approach with people-centred indicators.

It remains to be seen which countries will have the courage to get off the bicycle, and start walking with their communities.