Global security is a key benefit of drug policy reform – let’s use it in our advocacy


“Our investigation has shown that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ undermines international security. Consumer countries of the developed world have seen whole communities devastated by epidemics of drugs misuse and crime. Addicts of drugs such as heroin have been marginalised and stigmatised and many otherwise law-abiding citizens criminalised for their consumption choices.”

Nigel Inkster, Former MI6 deputy director joins call to end “war on drugs”, Daily Telegraph, 2012


In 2011 Transform partnered with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in a piece of work which concluded that the war on drugs undermines international security.  What was remarkable about this project is not that it culminated in the former deputy head of MI6 writing in The Sun newspaper that legalising and regulating drugs was worthy of exploration, it was that the drug policy reform movement collectively decided not to make more of it.

The three pillars of the UN are: peace and security, development and human rights – and all three are undermined by ‘securitising’ drugs; by treating drugs as an existential threat to the health and welfare of humankind, a threat that must be tackled through the use of extraordinary measures (in this case the blanket criminalisation of people who produce, supply or use certain drugs for recreational purposes). (Note that the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk has not identified ‘drugs’ as part of their brief.)

The vast drug market gifted to transnational organised crime groups (TOCs) empowered them to such an extent that they were in turn securitised as a threat to the state, supposedly necessitating a militarised response.  In 2011 I wrote two papers exploring the impact of these two securitisations and outlining the benefits of de-securitising, shifting from a threat-based to a management-based approach, and from criminalisation to regulation.  The obvious inference is that ending the global drug war and replacing it with a system of regulation and control promotes international security.  The question I want to explore here is, Why is the drug policy reform movement reluctant to say this?

For many years the field has been comfortable with describing our work as being built upon the principles of health and human rights; with saying that we want a development based approach, or one that is based on justice, equality, value for money, environmental sustainability, or that promotes good governance.  We are comfortable with human security, but we shy away from calling for a policy that promotes state security.

My sense is that the ‘shyness’ has four origins:

  1. Security is often used to mean a police- and military-dominated paradigm, which is obviously what we’re trying to move away from;
  2. As organisations representing civil society, the needs of the state are not a priority for us;
  3. State representatives whose states are under threat as a result of the war on drugs, are loathe to admit it; and
  4. Members of the UN Security Council are never going to initiate a discourse that includes evidence showing that one of the major projects of the UN fundamentally undermines global security.  These four issues create what might be considered a conspiracy of silence. 

And at the same time the UNODC has been at pains since 2008 (when it first published its analysis on so-called ‘unintended consequences’ of the drug control system) to describe precisely the way that prohibition threatens global security:

“Global drug control efforts have had a dramatic unintended consequence: a criminal black market of staggering proportions. Organized crime is a threat to security. Criminal organizations have the power to destabilize society and Governments. The illicit drug business is worth billions of dollars a year, part of which is used to corrupt government officials and to poison economies.

Drug cartels are spreading violence in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. West Africa is under attack from narco-trafficking. Collusion between insurgents and criminal groups threatens the stability of West Asia, the Andes and parts of Africa, fuelling the trade in smuggled weapons, the plunder of natural resources and piracy.” (Source)

To me, this startling candidness is an own goal. And one that the reform movement has, thus far, failed to capitalise upon.

This is not an abstract discussion. At the 2009 Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Ecuador’s statement to the High Level Meeting described its approach as a ‘De-securitisation of drug policy which allows us to address the problem from the perspective of health and human rights’. And in an interview with The Economist in August 2014, then-president of Uruguay, José Mujica, declared that the world’s first government-controlled cannabis market “began essentially as a security issue”.

At its simplest, security is nothing more nor less than a form of protection offered to counteract a deliberate threat.  Where the needs of state and citizen coincide we must show that we have shared goals and therefore common cause, in ending the global drug war.  Let us take security officials at their word: if the threat-based approach to drugs was supposed to promote human security, it has evidently and manifestly failed, and worse, has brought misery and early death to millions.  If the threat-based approach to organised crime was supposed to promote state security, it has evidently and manifestly failed, and worse, it has brought wealth and firepower to TOCs, enabling them to successfully compete for the monopoly on legitimate violence that is the very definition of the state.

In my view we are missing a trick by supporting only two of the three pillars of the UN. As citizens we deserve justice, development, human rights, health, fiscal responsibility, equality, and all the rest. But, unless we are anarchists or communists, we expect these to be delivered by a well-functioning state, and that requires national and international security. The paradox is that only by relinquishing the threat-based international drug war can we hope to achieve international security.

The security discourse goes to the very heart of what the drug policy reform is about: namely the shift from an imposition of state monopoly violence against citizens (global drug prohibition) that has put numerous state monopolies in jeopardy, to a system of legal regulation, based upon human rights and development principles, that has the huge benefit of upholding, not undermining human, national, and ultimately international security.