A failure in counter-narcotic policy

Trillions of dollars have been spent attempting to tackle illicit drug economies, but the problem continues to grow. Globally, opium production has doubled since the turn of the century. According to the latest estimates, the global value of the illicit drug market could be between US$300 and US$600 billion a year. In Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar, illicit drug cultivation has continued to grow even after the signing of ceasefires and peace agreements.

By any measure, this is a failure of counter-narcotic policy. Law enforcement (including policies associated with the “war on drugs”) rather than development and peacebuilding are at the leading edge of efforts to combat drug economies in fragile, borderland regions.

This paper supports the case that the two strategic pillars of the “war on drugs” – the eradication of illicit crops and the militarisation of the fight against drug gangs – have both been a disaster. Globally, the fragile consensus surrounding the “war on drugs” is falling apart.

There are increasing efforts to establish counter-narcotic strategies that prioritise pro-poor development, align antidrugs policy with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and move away from the militarised approach inherent in the “war on drugs”.

While these iniatives are welcome, to date, the evidence base to support such policy reform remains weak. It is unclear how these seemingly opposed policy fields – drugs and development – can be reconciled in practice.