War on Drugs: reflection on the relevance and sustainability

According to the UNODC’s World Drug Report 2012 [1], about 230 million people, or 5 per cent of the world’s adult population, are estimated to have used an illicit drug at least once in 2010. Problem drug users number about 27 million, which is 0.6 per cent of the world adult population. Throughout the world, illicit drug use appears to be generally stable, though it continues to be rising in several developing countries. Heroin, cocaine and other drugs kill around 0.2 million people each year [that is to say 0.34% of the 59 million deaths per year worldwide].” [2]

Drug Policies have been developed to reduce harm to individuals and communities: less crime, better health and greater economic and social development. But the results are measured through indicators that reflect processes such as the number of arrests, seizures and the severity of sanctions [3]. The outcome of this war on drugs is condemned worldwide and declarations in favor of a policy change are making themselves heard. July 18, 2010, at the Vienna Conference on AIDS, researchers say publicly that “the criminalization of illicit drug users is fueling the HIV epidemic and has been overwhelmingly negative for health and society .» [4] The Global Commission on Drug Policy calls for «Begin[ing] the transformation of the global drug prohibition regime. Replace drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights – and adopt appropriate criteria for their evaluation ." [5] President Barack Obama said in 2011 that " [The legalization and regulation of drugs] is an entirely legitimate topic for debate .» [6]

But in addition to the public debate, it is essential that this debate takes place within the organization that sets international drug conventions, the UN, because changing these conventions will allow plans to change these different national legal systems. In addition, if a change is required in order to be relevant and effective, it must be comprehensive and be subject to international harmonization.

The current trend is already going to a better allocation of repressive and sanitary approaches, aided by a judicial reform and budgetary recast for a rebalancing of powers, better support for drug users and increased efficiency in the fight against drug trafficking. Resources of law enforcement as well can be targeted more effectively to combat organized crime groups who extended their power and are able to make profits on the drug market. [7]

Sustainable development of drug policy in producing countries

"The development is considered sustainable when it allows current generations to meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. This implies that future generations have at least as many resources in the form of capital or various potentialities than the current generation .” [8]

In a number of countries, often referred to as narco-states, drugs, crime, money laundering and corruption hinder development efforts. These activities related to drug trafficking have the effect of destroying the human and social capital, discourage investment and reduce the ability of these states to develop.

Rethinking international conventions on narcotic drugs in these countries would sustainably:
- Reduce the attractiveness of organized crime for these crops. Prohibition gives value to drugs and increases narco-trafficking.
- End the spiral of violence linked with narco-trafficking. It is the financial stakes of narco-trafficking that contribute to violence, war for power, territories and control of drug trafficking routes. In fact, if drug trafficking had no reason to be, the violence it engenders would decrease.
- Improve the conditions and status of small producers. Drug production has diverted farmers from a more sustainable agriculture, especially local food production. A controlled and diversified production would allow small farmers to overcome the threat posed to them by traffickers, paramilitary or terrorist groups. The legal income would decrease their precariousness and social exclusion and favor their development.
- Reduce crime. Drug trafficking leads to the development of a high crime rate.
- Curb the development of drug consumption. The producing countries population was consuming traditional products. Drug trafficking made available refined products, thereby generating a demand that did not exist before or weakly. The availability of inexpensive drugs in these countries inevitably leads to high levels of local consumption.
- Reduce environmental misdeeds. The persecution of drug producers involves regular extermination of cultures, leading to deforestation when production is outsourced. The use of different defoliants and pesticides in the cultivation and eradication are also disastrous. All this may be particularly detrimental to indigenous communities and biodiversity.
- Improve Human Rights. In many of these countries the Human Rights are abused in the name of drug enforcement (arbitrary trials, abusive prison sentences, maltreatment, executions).
- Benefit from legitimate income.
- Reduce geopolitical risks. Many governments in these countries are engaged in an ongoing civil war with the drug cartels. The reduction of violence would stabilize the country's security. The weakening of paramilitary groups, revolutionary juntas or terrorist groups would reduce the risk of civil wars, terrorist attacks or political crisis.
- Restoring the importance of the national culture. Drug trafficking and the war on drugs tarnish the image of the country and brand them.
- Strengthen democracy, the authority of the state and public services.  The power and influence of the drug cartels seriously weaken states. The culture of fear and corruption can make it almost impossible to exercise democratic influence for citizens to access their rights and for their officials to take into account the quality and scope of essential services such as health and education. Decrease the influence of cartels, paramilitary, terrorist groups and their power to disrupt would benefit to political stability and the strengthening of democracy. The consolidation of these states would amend their positions in international policies, would lend credibility and would reduce interference from outside countries in their internal affairs.

According to a definition by Jérôme Ballet, Jean-Luc Dubois and François-Régis Mahieu, the development is considered as "socially sustainable" when "it guarantees to present and future generations an improvement of the well-being capabilities (economical, social or ecological) for all, through the pursuit of equity on the one hand, in the intra-generational distribution of these capabilities and, secondly, in their intergenerational transmission.” [9]

The Harm Reduction policy is an integral part of this process of socially sustainable development:
- Permitting the constitution or reconstruction of capabilities among drug users. It recognizes drug users as responsible persons able to exercise their free will to make choices about their health. Its purpose is only to provide the means (information, sterile material, access to social rights...) to people who use psychoactive substances to protect their health capital.
- Recognizing the user as an expert for himself and his health, with knowledge and expertise relating to the use of drugs. Beyond the question of his own health, this approach enhances and contributes to the development of capabilities of these people.
- Allowing to a number of drug users to be able to build their own future generations. The information and health promotion actions enabled drug users to avoid deaths and sick persons with HIV to access specialized services of assisted procreation, increasing the renewal of generations in this community. Through this collective awareness of consciousness, drug users represent only 2-3% of new HIV infections and overdoses have been divided by 10. The experience and programs established to achieve these results will benefit future generations.

All these changes if they had to take place, will take time to implement. But it is one of the aspects of sustainable development: the process is long to implement because it requires the involvement of all stakeholders in order to co-build a project that is sustainable over time. In this regard, the Harm Reduction policy has demonstrated the benefits of a different approach to those of the international conventions. This pragmatic approach is fully in line with sustainable development. Necessary but not sufficient, the development of a new paradigm of drug policy would develop new and innovative programs.


The debate surrounding these issues related to drugs is exciting because it is a reflection of our society. By writing, "You can judge the degree of civilization of a society by entering its prisons" Dostoevsky criticized the way we approach and to treat people who disturb society. Taking the example of prisons and prisoners, he points the finger at those who pose problems in a community and how the community reacts to these perturbations. Facing it, or hide the problem. The Drug policies and the societal debate surrounding this issue apply the same reasoning. «Getting drug policy right is not a matter for theoretical or intellectual debate – it is one of the key policy challenges of our time .» [10]


By Georges Lachaze (jejor@hotmail.com)


[1] UNODC, World Drug Report 2012, preface iii.
[2] http://www.planetoscope.com/demographie-urbanisme/mortalite
[3] Global Commission on Drug Policy, War On Drugs, Report of The Global Commission on Drug Policy, Juin 2011. P. 5.
[4] Dominique Dumand et Gérard Doublet « Drogues : prohibition, décriminalisation et Réduction des risques », Multitudes 1/2011 (n° 44), p. 42-46. www.cairn.info/revue-multitudes-2011-1-page-42.html
[5] Count The Costs, The War On Drugs: Options And Alternatives, P. 6.
[6] Count The Costs, The War On Drugs: Options And Alternatives, P. 9.
[7] Global Commission on Drug Policy, War On Drugs, Report of The Global Commission on Drug Policy, Juin 2011. P.16.

[8] Jérôme Ballet, Jean-Luc Dubois et François-Régis Mahieu, « A la recherche du développement socialement durable: concepts fondamentaux et principes de base », Développement durable et territoires [En ligne], Dossier 3 | 2004. http://developpementdurable.revues.org/1165

[9] Jérôme Ballet, Jean-Luc Dubois et François-Régis Mahieu, « A la recherche du développement socialement durable: concepts fondamentaux et principes de base », Développement durable et territoires [En ligne], Dossier 3 | 2004. http://developpementdurable.revues.org/1165

[10] Global Commission on Drug Policy, War On Drugs, Report of The Global Commission on Drug Policy, Juin 2011. P.17.