Another UN agency savages the drug war


The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UN agency charged with developing strategies to reduce global poverty, has strongly criticised current international drug policy, highlighting the disastrous costs it is producing – particularly for the world’s poor.

In the agency’s formal submission to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs (PDF), launched at the annual UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs which began last week in Vienna, the UNDP argues:

"While drug control policies have been justified by the real and potential harms associated with illicit drug production, trafficking, and use (e.g., threats to safety and security, health problems, crime, decreased productivity, unemployment, and poverty), evidence shows that in many countries, policies and related enforcement activities focused on reducing supply and demand have had little effect in eradicating production or problematic drug use." 

The agency goes on to say:

"As various UN organizations have observed, these efforts have had harmful collateral consequences: creating a criminal black market; fuelling corruption, violence, and instability; threatening public health and safety; generating large-scale human rights abuses, including abusive and inhumane punishments; and discrimination and marginalization of people who use drugs, indigenous peoples, women, and youth".

With regard to the harmful impacts on international development specifically, the UNDP states that international drug policy is having a negative effect on “poverty and sustainable livelihoods; governance and the rule of law; human rights; gender equality; the environment; and on indigenous peoples and traditional and religious practices.”  Detailed sections on each of these topic areas follow in the body of the report. 



On sustainable development:

"Anti-drug operations, including crop eradication campaigns, and drug-related armed conflict fuel displacement, with disproportionate impacts on less developed communities, including indigenous communities and ethnic minorities."

On the criminalisation of people who use drugs, and its impact on health:

"... criminal laws and related enforcement policies and practices, including those that criminalize possession or distribution of harm reduction tools such as sterile syringes and other drug paraphernalia, OST, and peer outreach to people who use drugs; government registration of people who use drugs on registries accessible to police; and abusive policing practices have impeded access to these lifesaving healthservices in many countries, thus putting people who use drugs at increased risk of HIV, viral hepatitis, and premature death by overdose."

On the impact of drug policies on the formal economy:

"Current drug control efforts have fuelled the creation of a huge criminal black market for illicit drugs, estimated to turn over more than $332 billion annually ... [This market] has fuelled as well as exacerbated violence, conflict, crime, and corruption, and contributed to instability of governments throughout parts of Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa."

On human rights:

"In many countries around the world, drug control efforts result in serious human rights abuses: torture and ill treatment by police, mass incarceration, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, denial of essential medicines and basic health services. Local communities in drug producing countries regularly face violations of their human rights as a result of campaigns to eradicate illicit crops, including environmental damage, attacks on indigenous cultures, and displacement and damage to health from chemical spraying. Communities also face serious human rights abuses by large scale drug trafficking organizations including massacres, killings, forced displacement, sexual and physical violence, and extortion."

On gender:

"A substantial percentage of women in prison are incarcerated for drug offenses – an estimated 70 percent in some countries in the Americas and in Europe and Central Asia – a significant number for low level, non-violent drug offenses. Many of them are young, illiterate or with little schooling, single mothers and responsible for the care of their children or other family members. While more men are incarcerated for drug offenses, the consequences of criminal punishment fall differently on women, and often have greater impact on their children and their families. Yet women’s caring responsibilities are not taken into account at sentencing, nor recognized or met at the prison."

On the environment: 

"Drug cultivation, production and related trafficking and enforcement activities can also cause seriousharm to the environment including: deforestation, soil erosion and degradation, loss of endemic species, contamination of soil, groundwater, and waterways and the release of climate change fuelling gases."

On indigenous peoples:

"The criminalization of indigenous, traditional practices done without consultation of indigenous communities raises a number of human rights and development concerns. The ban on traditional uses of coca, opium, and cannabis was passed at a time when scant attention was given to cultural and indigenous rights and before the adoption of key international instruments and relevant jurisprudence protecting the right of all indigenous peoples to free and prior informed consent relating to issues that affect them, and to maintain traditional, religious, and medical practices, and to own, develop, control and use of their real property and resources. Criminalization of drugs used for traditional and religious purposes likewise contradicts human rights protections for the traditional and religious uses of controlled drugs."

In light of these “collateral” harms caused by enforcement-led drug policies, the UNDP argues that “new approaches are both urgent and necessary,” and highlights how the decriminalisation of personal drug possession is permissible under the UN conventions, and has been successfully implemented in a number of UN member states.

The UNDP position both mirrors and builds on that taken by other UN agencies and officials, including the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, current and former UN Secretaries-General Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan, and then-UN special rapporteur on the right to health Anand GroverIt’s also worth noting that, while not specifically recommending decriminalisation, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime – the agency responsible for enforcing repressive, prohibitionist drug policies worldwide – is among those UN bodies that have emphasised the vast harms caused by the current approach to drugs. The UNODC previously acknowledged (PDF) many of these “unintended consequences” as far back as 2008, and its recently updated website puts the scale of the problem in even starker terms.


The UNDP positions the UNGASS in 2016 as an important opportunity to begin rebalancing the international drug control system, moving away from failed criminal justice-led responses and towards measures that better protect health and human rights, and reduce the stigma and discrimination faced by people who use drugs, or marginalised populations drawn into the illcit drug economy. 

The UNDP’s position has clearly evolved in its detail and sophistication since its head, Helen Clark, said in 2013: “... there’s no doubt that the health position would be to treat the issue of drugs as primarily a health and social issue rather than a criminalized issue.” That the UNDP has now so forcefully critiqued current policy in such detail, and has recommended exploring alternatives, is indicative of the growing momentum in the reform debate taking place in high-level UN and regional forums around the world. 

It is vital that development agencies and NGOs actively particpate in this debate and speak out on how failed and counterproductive drug policies are undermining their work – just as the UNDP has now done. Indeed, there are signs that some sections of the development community are taking a greater interest in this issue. Last month saw the publication of a new report by Health Poverty Action entitled ‘Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs is harming the world’s poorest’, which argues along the same lines as the UNDP, and much more is being written about the links between drugs and development by academics and other UN agencies. ‘Drugs and Development: The Great Disconnect’ (PDF), by Dr Julia Buxton, and the World Bank’s 2011 ‘World Development Report’, and are essential reading for those working in the development sector who want to find out more.

Finally, the UNDP's report highlights the lack of system-wide coherence within the UN – essentially the idea that all agencies ought to base their work on the three guiding principles of the UN: security, development and human rights. The UNDP says it's ready to collaborate with other UN bodies to address the drugs issue, and this is essential if the international community is to move past a simplistic, enforcement-led strategy and recognise the multifaceted and complex nature of drug policy. We hope the UNDP's stance will lead other UN agencies to submit their own, sector-specific critiques of the war on drugs. The UNGASS will only serve the needs of the world's citizens if it enables both a comprehensive review and a genuine consideration of alternatives to take place.