Where Does Drug Policy Fit in the UN's Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals?

Despite a growing understanding of the close relationship between development and drugs, there remains a lack of cohesion in policy moving toward the United Nation’s (UN) post-2015 agenda for international development.

September will mark a watershed moment for the UN and its member states when they formally adopt the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), building on the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in 2000.

The 17 targets set to be formalized this year will progress on the MDGs' aims of tackling extreme poverty, hunger, HIV/AIDS, and gender inequality, among others, by ensuring deeper commitments are made to environmental protection, increasing institutional justice and providing lasting prosperity by 2030.

Since the adoption of the MDGs, acknowledgement of just how far reaching drug policy is, and how disastrous out and out prohibition has been in terms of public health, security and development has undoubtedly risen. In a recent report by the UN Development Program (UNDP), the agency underlines how drug control 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."

Indeed, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) -- which was conspicuous in its absence in helping formulate the MDGs -- has been increasingly vocal on the threat the narcotics industry and other manifestations of organized crime pose to international development, and become a proponent of sustainable alternative development (AD) for communities currently involved in the cultivation of illicit crops.

In July 2013, the UNODC chief, Yury Fedotov, openly called for drug issues to be aligned with the post-2015 agenda and just three months later the agency published a lengthy report stressing the need for security and justice to feature in the post-2015 narrative, arguing for a new set of measurements and aims that “could and should privilege security and justice.”

The time is seemingly ripe, therefore, for a holistic approach to international development that will account for and combat all major obstacles currently impeding its advancement. Right?

Sadly, this doesn't appear to be the case with regards to drug policy. For one -- though this may be nitpicking -- drugs are only directly referred to once in the entire set of 17 goals and 169 targets; in Goal 3 ("Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages") one target is to “strengthen prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse.” 

Of course, alluding directly to drugs is not always necessary to address the associated issues and the SDGs are so expansive that they do not necessarily exclude the issues of drugs or drug policy in any way. For example, Goal 9 -- "Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation"-- would theoretically apply to AD programs for illicit crop growers.

However, what this represents is a disconnect. The lack of direct referral to drugs issues within the development framework suggests that the overarching paradigm we have in place for global drug policy can continue by and large, and that the collateral damage it causes can be mitigated with development goals. Such a premise would appear self defeating.

If the UN's own development agency has signaled how many acknowledge the harms of drug control efforts on human development, surely the beginning point would be a redesign of the approach to the so-called "world drug problem"? Otherwise, attempts to forge ahead with the UN's ambitious development agenda will continue to come up against the behemoth that is the international drug control system and its detrimental impacts.

Yes, the UNODC is working to improve access to harm reduction services around the world to stem the transmission of HIV and other blood-borne viruses. It's also, as previously mentioned, putting its weight behind the drive for AD. But, the foundation of these initiatives is still a system whereby the UNODC will support states that criminalize drug users, force them into "rehabilitation" centers, execute drug offenders and eradicate illicit crops with no AD programs there as an option for poor farmers caught in the trade. All of these certainly appear to go against the principle of development.

Even on the issue of AD in isolation, some of the programs implemented to date reveal the shortcomings of this approach as a way of ensuring sustainable development in the face of a prohibitionist drug control system.

The Transnational Institute (TNI) have produced numerous papers evidencing the “the breach between rhetoric and reality” of AD projects, in particular analyzing the results of AD in the Upper Huallaga region in Peru – a region with a long history of coca and cocaine production. Findings of this report were:

  • AD had driven the cocaine industry underground.
  • Cultivation dropped as a result of forced eradication not crop substitution.
  • Alternative crops were neither economically viable or appropriate in much of the area.
  • Corruption and lack of monitoring and correct enforcement at the local level hindered progress.

In short, awareness of the interrelatedness of drugs and development issues will not be enough to secure advances in international development beyond 2015. The issue of development may be extremely complex and multifaceted, but one thing is undeniable -- drug policy plays an enormous part in impacting upon the societal, economic and political progress of nations across the world. If the current order is maintained, the SDGs will come up against some serious barriers and human development be thwarted as states move toward 2030.