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Anti-narcotics police set up drugs to be burned on the outskirts of Panama City, Dec. 5, 2014 (AP photo by Arnulfo Franco).

How New Metrics Can Reset Global Drug Policy

, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015

The war on drugs has been subjected to unprecedented criticism over the past few years. For the first time since the inception of the international drug regime in the 1960s, world leaders are calling for the regulated legalization of all drugs, and not just marijuana. Politicians, businessmen and activists from across North, Central and South America are leading the charge.

Several Latin American presidents are at the forefront of this drug policy revolution, insisting on the legalization of cannabis, opium poppies and coca. Some Western European leaders are also demanding that punitive drug laws be replaced with updated measures putting public health, human rights and safety at their center.

It is not surprising that Colombians, Guatemalans, Mexicans and Uruguayans are insisting on a new approach. For many of them, the war on drugs is personal. The region is ground zero for the $330 billion a year illicit drug trafficking business. Many Latin American countries and cities are also experiencing increasing murder rates—several times the global average—owing in large part to the militarization of drug policy in the region.

For more than five decades, the goals of drug policy were disproportionately slanted toward tamping down the supply of illicit drugs in producing and transit countries. Success was measured in acres of illicit crops eradicated, tons of illegal drugs interdicted and numbers of producers, traffickers and consumers put behind bars. Demand- and harm-reduction strategies were an afterthought, often consisting of involuntary treatment programs for users and pleas for abstinence.

There is just one problem: The war on drugs isn’t working. It has never worked. Notwithstanding the faithful pursuit of fumigation programs, counternarcotics activities and “just say no” campaigns, neither demand nor supply have declined. By the United Nations’ own admission, the war on drugs failed. Instead, it has fueled organized crime and violence, filled prisons with low-level traffickers and users, and destroyed the lives of tens of millions of people along the way. And while the positions of some drug war enforcers are softening, more than $100 billion is still spent on prosecuting this strategy annually.

One way to change the direction of global drug policy is to literally change the terms of the debate. Since 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has done just that. It has encouraged presidents, prime ministers and business leaders to dramatically rethink ways of dealing with drugs, including how they measure successful policy outcomes and impacts. The commissioners advocate for the reduction of supply and demand, but they differ fundamentally from hardliners in how that should be achieved.

Most of the recommendations of the Global Commission are not nearly as radical as hardliners presume. In fact, many of the suggestions set out in its most recent 2014 report are aligned with the letter of the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. But instead of investing in more military hardware, police training and intelligence support—all of which are important in their own right—the commission believes that real reductions in drug supply and demand will come through sustained improvements in public health and safety, strengthening of human rights and anti-corruption measures and investments in sustainable development.

The introduction of new goals, targets and indicators are one powerful way to help craft more effective and efficient international drug policies. A new study issued by the Igarapé Institute and the Global Commission Secretariat does precisely that. It is informed by interviews with dozens of leading experts working in law enforcement, justice and public health and draws lessons from analogous monitoring initiatives underway from Australia to the United Kingdom.

New metrics are essential to redirecting global drug policy in the 21st century. They are not an esoteric technocratic exercise. At the moment, the conventional drug policy metrics outlined above send a distorted message to elected officials, military generals, police chiefs and prison wardens. Measuring the effects of drug policy by dollars spent on counternarcotics equipment and personnel, tonnage of drugs seized and numbers of people behind bars may show how tough a government is being in pursuing a war on drugs, but it says very little about whether such an approach is successful or not.

New metrics can reframe the global drug policy narrative in a more progressive direction. The six goals, 16 targets and 86 indicators outlined in the report are not the final word: They are intended to start a conversation. Taken together, they emphasize ending the criminalization of drug users; curbing drug use through public health measures; diminishing the incarceration of nonviolent drug-related offenders; targeting violent organized crime groups and traffickers; providing meaningful alternatives to illicit crop production; and encouraging experimentation with different approaches to regulating drugs.

These kinds of drug policy goals, targets and indicators can help change the discussion for the better. Setting more nuanced metrics can help governments, private sector actors and civil societies reframe priorities, design more sophisticated legislation and adequately resource programs. While some of the underlying information required to measure progress may still be missing or of poor quality, refocusing attention on new benchmarks can incentivize improvements in data collection and analysis.

Of course, the Global Commission of course does not recommend that governments pursue change recklessly. Political leaders should proceed cautiously and on the basis of scientific evidence when thinking about reorienting their drug policies. While encouraged to experiment, they should do so on the basis of a careful review of the local context and their own needs and capabilities. There are no one-size-fits all solutions; experimentation as in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, New Zealand and the United States is to be encouraged.

It is crucial to move the drug policy debate forward in a more humane direction. This is especially so as the United Nations prepares for a special session of the General Assembly on Drugs (UNGASS) in 2016. There is now a once-in-a-generation opportunity to inject new thinking into a global drug regime fit for the 21st century. We should take advantage of it.

Editor’s note: By policy we only publish content that is original and exclusive to World Politics Review. It came to our attention after publication that a version of this article had previously appeared elsewhere online, under a Creative Commons license. As a result, we have decided to locate the article in front of our paywall.

Robert Muggah is the research director of the Igarapé Institute and contributor to the Global Commission on Drug Policy. He also directs research at the SecDev Foundation.

Ilona Szabo de Carvalho is the executive director of the Igarapé Institute and the coordinator of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Her TED talk on drug policy reform will be available later in 2015.