By Dave Bewley-Taylor & Christian Schneider

In April 2016, the UN held a General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem. During this high-level conference, member states to the UN adopted an Outcome Document which, like previous soft law instruments on the issue, restated that the current approach of the international drug control system remains largely successful and appropriate to the task at hand. This was the case even though the system is yet to achieve its core goal set nearly sixty years ago: to, in general terms, significantly reduce drug-related problems and associated harms. Indeed, the Document was adopted in New York despite the fact that there is little evidence that the current approach to international drug control – a combination of measures aimed at reducing simultaneously the supply of and demand for what are commonly known as illicit drugs – has led to any substantive or lasting reduction in drug-related harm.

This lack of evidence concerning the effectiveness of the international drug control system raises an obvious issue. Why do most states continue to adhere to the current approach with little question or critique? This policy brief argues that outcome metrics – the way in which the successes and failures of international drug control policies are measured - plays an important role in preserving the current shape of the international drug control system; a dynamic that has been referred to elsewhere as the ‘metrics trap’. As we shall see, this has much to do with how drug markets and interventions are measured as well and what is and what is not currently included within assessment processes. For example, the metrics used by the UN drug control apparatus measure key properties of illicit markets imprecisely. Some indicators do not measure what they are supposed to measure. And some metrics – which would be crucial for an appropriately holistic understanding of the consequences of international drug control - are not part of the set of metrics used by the UN. These shortcomings result in a situation where the currently dominant sets of indicators only partially reflect the reality of the successes and failures of international drug control.

Keep up-to-date with drug policy developments by subscribing to the IDPC Monthly Alert