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The drugs problem is complex. There is no magic solution, but it is clear that the current status quo requires a serious rethink based on ‘the best evidence we can generate’, as highlighted by the final report of the UK Drug Policy Commission, A Fresh Approach to Drugs. This translates to a more robust impact assessment as to what works and does not work, and whether change can be linked back to policies. Closer relations between governmental organizations, universities and policy institutes would be a useful step forward in order to come up with sensible and non-politically sensitive measures to improve the current situation.

There are a number of areas that can be improved. Firstly, there is too much policy emphasis on the consumption of illicit drugs at the expense of other legal psychoactive substances (including tobacco, alcohol, over-the-counter medicine, prescription medicine and ‘legal highs’). Any policy should address the broader social context in which consumption of any kind of drug develops and strive to tackle the personal, societal, economic and institutional factors associated with it.

However, and this is the second key point, the problem with drugs is not just about consumption, despite much of the media focus on drug users especially following the recent legalization votes in Colorado and Washington. Crucially, more policy emphasis on the harms created at various stages of production and trafficking would help inform public judgment on this issue that affects a huge number of people across the world. It is essential to highlight the differences in the severity of harms along the drug supply chain, from the 60,000 drug-related killings over the past six years in Mexico to secondary effects of marijuana usage.

Drugs are a globally interconnected policy challenge. When David Cameron rejected calls for a drug policy review from the Home Affairs Select Committee last month (Drugs: Breaking the Cycle), his arguments only focused on the situation in the UK (‘We have a policy which actually is working in Britain’). Drugs on the streets of London may be the product of violence in Latin America, via West Africa, through Europe, or from Afghanistan, through Central Asia and the Balkans. The drugs business creates negative consequences all along the drug supply chain. The failings of current domestic drug policies have negative implications for social justice across the world. As one example, 33 countries sanction drug offences with the death penalty – over 540 people were executed for drugs offences in Iran alone in 2011.

This demonstrates that drugs are an international security issue, something Chatham House has aimed to emphasise through its Drugs and Organized Crime project. The project was established over a year ago with the aim of providing a politically neutral and multidisciplinary approach to some of the policy challenges surrounding drugs and organized crime. Through the development of a broad and varied network of senior individuals and organizations, the project has sought to highlight the importance of a comprehensive approach that highlights the local, regional and international dimensions of the topic and how they relate to one another for government strategies. In so doing, the project explores the overlap and significance of areas including public health, education, law enforcement and civil society efforts in informing more effective approaches to drugs policy.

Benoît Gomis is a researcher at the International Security Research Department of Chatham House.

Follow Benoît on Twitter: @benoitgomis


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