Are illicit drugs a development issue and if so, what should we do about it?

I spent Wednesday morning taking drugs seriously. OK that’s the last of the lame do/take drug jokes. What I actually did was have a coffee with Dannydrugs and development 1 Kushlick and Martin Powell of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, and then attend a Christian Aid seminar on drugs and development. Both conversations addressed the same questions: are drugs becoming an un-ignorable development issue and if so, what should we (INGOs, aid agencies etc) do about it?

The answer to the first question is pretty obviously ‘yes’. In the rich countries the ‘war on drugs’ is getting nowhere, stymied (among other reasons) by the basic laws of supply and demand – any success in the war reduces supply, so prices rise, so supply recovers. In the producer countries, the vast sums involved ($330bn a year, by one estimate) poison politics. And increasingly, the divide between producer and consumer countries is being eroded, as drugs spill over into the slums and alleyways of the developing world – including West Africa, where transhipment and consumption are becoming major issues. Everyone gets dirty, trust is destroyed, communities turn bad. As Christian Aid’s Paul Valentin said, ‘the drugs trade cuts across everything we do – inequality, tax havens, access to services, HIV. Over half the countries we are working in are directly affected.’

And it is likely to grow in prominence: Fiscal pressures in the North will draw attention to the vast waste of money involved in criminalizing drug users and then having to pay Hilton-like amounts to keep them rotting in jail. Arguing that the drug trade is wrecking their countries, a number of Latin American governments, led by a weird combination of Uruguay (centre left) and Guatemala (ex-military president) have successfully challenged the US in getting the normally supine Organization of American States to issue a report last week that some saw as ‘the beginning of the end for blanket prohibition’. They have helped persuade the UN to bring forward to 2016 its General Assembly Special Session on reviewing global drug policy.

OK, but in development policy world, Cinderella issues seem to outnumber the real ones, and if I raise this one with the poor souls who have to try and set priorities for a large NGO like Oxfam, then (in the words of my colleague Ian Bray), ‘eyeballs will roll’. I can hear them now: Yet another topic. What do you want us to stop doing? Spreading ourselves too thin. Tough choices. What do we know about drugs policy? Etc etc.

So let’s look at this as a change process. Where are we on the journey from denial to ‘drugs policy at the heart of all we do’? Taking Matt Andrews’ book as a starting point (as I seem to do a lot at the moment), a shift of this sort takes place in 5 stages, with potential roles for outsiders at each stage

  • Deinstitutionalization: encourage the growing discussion on the problems of the current model
  • Preinstitutionalization: groups begin innovating in search of alternative logics
  • Theorization: proposed new institutions are explained to the broader community, needing a ‘compelling message about change.’
  • Diffusion: a new consensus emerges
  • Reinstitutionalization: legitimacy (hegemony) is achieved.

drugs and development 2It seems to be that the deinstitutionalization of current drugs policy is well under way(see this UN paper or World Bank report) – we can foresee a point where almost everyone accepts that it isn’t working, and it’s costing a fortune. Looked at in this way, it is probably more important for those wishing to have an impact to stop bashing the current policies, and to move on to the next stages – searching for alternatives and building a new consensus.

That’s certainly what Transform is doing, making the case for a humane system of regulation (cf pharmaceuticals) as a sensible position between the polarized lunacies of the status quo and ‘legalize everything man’. But the problem here is the huge spread of ideologies in the reform camp, from libertarian stoners to security nuts, making it very hard for any new consensus to emerge beyond ‘this ain’t working’.

But then I got to thinking about what other former eyeball-rolling issues have moved into the mainstream in recent years, and hit on climate change. Ten years ago, global warming was definitely in the ‘groan, ignore, reject’ camp within development circles. Now it is very mainstream indeed. Oxfam does a shedload of work on the ground in terms of climate change adaptation – not sure what the equivalent on drugs would be – protection committees in Tijuana?

A more relevant comparison is with influencing the wider debate, where I think NGOs have gone in two broad directions on climate change: one has been to ‘bear witness’, showing from our experience on the ground that climate change is about people, not just polar bears. I think we’ve had real impact there and coincidentally, it fits with another of Matt Andrews’ findings that outsiders are better off sticking to problem definition than trying to propose solutions.

The other area has been to engage more directly in policy debates, and there, to be honest, I’m less convinced we’ve had much impact. Partly this ispolar bears in Balibecause the climate change policy response as a whole is badly becalmed. But also because, however smart the people involved, I don’t think that plays to our strengths in terms of legitimacy.

But what if we do want to go beyond repeating ad nauseam ‘drugs are a development issue’ (and rest assured, we will immediately be grilled on what we think about legalization etc)? Paul Valentin, Christian Aid’s International Director, thought it might play a convenor/broker role in getting faith institutions to think about this (an inter-faith dialogue on drugs, development and social justice anyone?). Another option is at least to include organized crime explicitly as part of our context and power analysis work. But should we go further, perhaps making the UNGASS 2016 the focal point of a global campaign?

So let’s have a vote – not because it (or I) will have any influence on Oxfam policy, but because I want to know what you think, (and also because I want a new poll so I am not reminded every day how badly I was mashed by Claire Melamed on post-2015). Do you think INGOs should a) avoid drugs as a campaign issue, b) engage in a limited ‘bearing witness mode’ on drugs and development or c) get stuck in as a major campaign. And remember, more work on drugs means less work on other stuff.

One final comment: there is some good advocacy work going on in this area. See for example the Count the Costs initiative, which has a useful briefing on drugs and development. That kind of thing needs funders, and the Open Society Foundation and George Soros deserve a lot of credit for a lot of it. It is vital to have this kind of outlier support, not least because of the tendency for development organizations to indulge in herd behaviour. When we finally get interested in some new issue, it can save years if some smaller, more nimble outfits have been able to find the funding to develop the thinking around it before the larger organizations lumber into town.

Update: Final result of poll: ‘Big campaign’ wins by a landslide- 63%; ‘bearing witness’ second with 30%; only  7% say don’t go there (125 votes after 3 days)

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11 Responses to “Are illicit drugs a development issue and if so, what should we do about it?”
  1. I am probably being way too simplistic, but since you asked…! It seems to me that the evil in drugs that can be addressed is their impact on community safety–the links to arms, local crime committed by drug-seekers, etc. Decriminalizing the use of drugs is a start–let users use and take the legal pressures off. The next step I guess would be bringing drug sales into the open market, which would drop prices and make them taxable and more controllable in terms of purity. Taxes go to address the health and safety issues around drug abuse and additional funding can come from the greatly reduced prison budgets.

    But to my mind, none of that will have much benefit if organizations don’t address the reasons people seek out drugs in the first place. I think drug use is one way people try to address their misery. It’s not a good way, but people in misery will settle for muzziness, unconsciousness, delirium…I think the important issue of preventing drug use is about addressing the roots of misery–poverty, hunger, apathy, fear, human rights.

  2. I wanted to include a related question in the comment I wrote yesterday but was already on a tangent as it were.
    This is it:
    Isn’t the approach from PDIA fairly difficult to combine with Oxfam’s problem/solution/villain approach to campaigning?

    • Duncan

      Yep, and with advocacy in general (pols always want solutions). Tricky issues. May be able to square circle by keeping solution deliberately broad (reduce maternal mortality), thereby allowing context-specific ways of getting there – sort of campaign equivalent of cash on delivery

  3. Although not a development organization, when I was with the military in Kandahar, 2009, we provided funding and jobs for some 20 local village projects while the farmers were growing pot as an off-season crop to sell as hashish. These crops seemed to have little or no negative impact on the villages, or the projects that were going on. 5km down the road however, opium was being grown, a crop that funds conflict and drug addiction. When differences like this exist within a single district, how can global regional, or even national policies be created?

  4. Andrew Hogg

    NGO’s that do more than bear witness in this debate should be prepared to very quickly face questions about where they stand vis a vis legalisation. At the seminar at Christian Aid you reference in you blog, this was erroneously characterised from the platform as likely to be the usual voice of outrage from the likes of the Daily Mail.I would suggest this is to woefully underestimate the extent of the debate that a major campaign will spark.

  5. Aqua

    It is my firm belief that corruption is the greatest inhibitor to effective government (controlling violence by the people, for the people).

    The biggest source of corrupting money that I am aware of is the drug trade. Lack of local security, largely caused by lack of effective government, is one of the greatest motivators for small Afghan farmers to grow opium; A year’s opium crop for one farmer is non-perishable and can easily be concealed, either in house, or in transit.
    Other agricultural products are bulky, perishable, and more obviously stealable.

    Studies in Europe have shown that heroin addicts are least harmful to themselves and society when provided with free medical heroin.

    Based on comparison between various countries, it appears that education (with information, not with fear) is most effective at reducing drug consumption.

    The Scandinavian pricing policy, and very high alcohol consumption, shows us that high prices will not discourage excessive consumption. Ironically, Scandinavian expats tend to reduce their alcohol consumption after some initial heavy drinking right after moving.

    In conclusion: the illicit drug trade is, through its corrupting influence, probably the biggest threat to developing countries. Significant reduction of demand is not practicable, nor will demand likely increase very much with a reduction in price.

    Consequently, price reduction of drugs, probably through decriminalisation or even legalisation of drug production should have the highest priority.

    Secondly, to reduce the harm caused by drug consumption, education needs to be prioritised.

  6. A commentator

    There is certainly a role for development organisations in drug policy but it would be concerning if this participation was guided by drug lobby organisations, such as Transform who have a clear mandate in regard to legalisation. Rather organisations like Oxfam need to find their own way through political discussions.

    For example, there has been great progress in Thailand, which used to be one of the largest producers of Opium and so, Oxfam would do well to look at these models, rather than accepting that production will simply continue.

    There is also a role for Oxfam in terms of looking at development issues surrounding the production of drugs for licit use (i.e. medical use). For example, pharmaceutical companies pulling out of purchasing opium for morphine in India or Turkey may lead to serious consequences in these countries and diversion into the illicit drug market. These are real issues Oxfam can get involved in.

    These are just some thoughts but I seriously hope organisations like Transform do not use organisations like Oxfam for their own political objectives.

    Thank you for your time appreciating my comments.

  7. As soon as Oxfam starts to give credit to George Soros, you know there is something very wrong . Do you really believe multibillionaires who deliberately ruined the economy of entire countries feel genuinely interested in the fate of drug producers or consumers? He is in it for the money guys.. Yes, drugs regulation is necessary, but no, within a capitalist system it won’t be good for nothing.

  8. In repsonse to A commenter (comment 7) Transform, for whom I work, is not a ‘drug lobby organisation’ (whatever that means) or a political organisation. It is a policy think tank and registered charity – working in the field of drug policy and law reform.

    As our website makes clear:

    “Transform Drug Policy Foundation is a charitable think tank that seeks to draw public attention to the fact that drug prohibition itself is the major cause of drug-related harm to individuals, communities and nations, and should be replaced by effective, just and humane government control and regulation.

    Transform has emerged in response to the increasingly apparent failings of current UK and international drug policy. As illegal drug use and the problems associated with illegal drug markets have continued to grow, Transform is providing new thinking on alternatives to the current enforcement-oriented regime of prohibition. ”

    You can read more about our goals here:

    Transform is not unusual in having a clear policy position in the policy arena it works in. Engaging development organisations in the drugs debate – one we argue has a significant impact on their work – is a natural part of our work.

    We hope to inform and encourage that debate, for example with the collabrative countthecosts project literature Duncan links – which I hope you will take the time to consider.

  9. This is a much larger issue than realised here. Around 850 billion dollars a year is being takem by corruption, fraud and the illicit drug trade from the poorer countries and transmitted to richrer ones. Raymond Baker estimates that ten corrupt dollars go out for every one dollar of development assistance that goes in (Emmons 2001).See submission to the Inquiry of an independent panel charged with reviewing the effectiveness of Australia’s Aid Program at and click on submissions.

  10. davenewman

    Think of this in trade terms. Given the high barriers to imports of really profitable crops such as opium, coca and cannabis (but not miraa), there are middlemen smugglers who take most of the profits away from the peasant growers.

    So what would be a fair trade approach to drugs? – from the trivial (fair trade brands of cannabis in Dutch cafes) to intellectual (getting the economists developing theories on fair trade to do studies of the trade in banned drugs.