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Will the UN mend the rift between drug policy and development?


United Nations General Assembly Hall in the UN Headquarters, New York, NY.

As the General Assembly’s Special Session on the World Drug Problem kicks-off we should keep in mind that we cannot achieve the Sustainable Development Goals unless we end the ‘war on drugs’, writes Natasha Horsfield.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out a plan of action which will shape the mainstream development agenda for the next 15 years. Drug policy is not only relevant to achieving the SDGs – it is critical. This week organizations from the development and drug policy communities are speaking out to say drug policy is a development issue: we simply cannot achieve the SDGs unless we end the ‘war on drugs’.

The current approach to global drug policy is dominated by strict prohibition, and the criminalization of drug cultivation, production, trade, possession and use. This approach has not only failed in its objectives: it is also undermining efforts to tackle poverty, improve access to health, protect the environment, reduce violence, and uphold the human rights of some of the most marginalized communities worldwide.

This week the UN General Assembly is holding a Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem. This is the highest level meeting on the issue for 18 years, originally called by the presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala in response to the urgent need to address drug policy reform in their countries and internationally.

The UNGASS presents an invaluable opportunity for governments to address these negative consequences by placing sustainable development at the centre of international drug control priorities. Over 40 members of the UK development sector and their national and international allies working on drug policy reform in 19 countries, are calling for member states at UNGASS to fully align the aims of global drug policy with the Sustainable Development Goals by adopting recommendations drafted by Health Poverty Action and a coalition of UK Development and Drug Policy NGOs.

These recommendations make it clear the SDGs should be a central consideration in the future implementation of drug control policy. They ask that the current drug war paradigm is recognized as a major obstacle to achieving many of the SDGs, and that all alternative policy options should be considered in the interest of promoting ‘development sensitive’ drug policy.

The criminalization of people who use drugs, and the absence of harm reduction services are currently leading to severe health impacts. The spread of preventable diseases such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis could be greatly reduced by recognizing harm reduction and evidence based drug treatment as crucial obligations in upholding the right to health.

The eradication of drug crops has extensive negative impacts in many communities. This prohibitionist approach deepens poverty and food insecurity, and damages the land and water sources communities rely on. To address this, drug policies should prioritize secure livelihoods, and environmental protection in line with the SDGs. The first step should be ending forced crop eradication.

Criminal competition over control of the illicit drug trade is often violent, and attempts by governments to control this trade are often heavy handed or even militarized. This approach fuels a cycle of violence, and can even lead to corruption or the collusion of security services, judiciaries and politicians. If we are to meet SDG 16 to promote peaceful and inclusive societies, drug control policies must be reformed to reduce violence and corruption.

Despite the focus on law enforcement, the majority of those imprisoned for drug offences are convicted of minor, non-violent offences. This disproportionately affects women, who are most commonly engaged in drug markets at a very low level. This needs to change if we are to meet SDGs 5 and 10 on equality, and address the needs of women and other marginalized groups. To achieve this decriminalization must be considered as an alternative for small scale producers, and people who use drugs.

The prioritization of a drug free world has been at the expense of sustainable development, health and peace for some of the most marginalized communities worldwide. These consequences of the so called ‘war on drugs’ will heavily impact the achievement of many of the SDGs if they continue unreformed. Although the UNGASS outcome document has included some positive language on sustainable development and the SDGs, it could have gone much further. As we present our recommendations for UNGASS this week, it is clear drug policy is a development issue. All that remains to see is if member states will seize the opportunity to change the conversation around drugs, and push for policies that will help mend the rift between drug policy and development at UNGASS and beyond.

Health Poverty Action is calling for a rethink of drug policies to end the negative impacts of prohibition for marginalized communities, and ensure it is possible to meet the SDGs. To find out more about the impacts of drug policy on development you can watch our animation video, or help us demand reform by taking our online pledge.

You can read the full recommendations document here. These recommendations are endorsed by the following organizations:

Health Poverty Action

International Alert


International HIV/AIDS Alliance

International Drug Policy Consortium

Transform Drug Policy Foundation

International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policies

Harm Reduction International

Advocates for International Development


Tipping Point North South

Doctors of the World

Mexico United Against Crime (MUCD – Mexico)

International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP)


The Beckley Foundation

Evangelical Protestant Church of El Salvador

Drug Policy Alliance

REDUC – Brazilian Harm Reduction and Human Rights Network.

Intercambios Civil Association

Drugs and Human Rights Research Center (CIDDH)

Kenya Hospices and Palliative Care Association (KEHPCA)

Students for Sensible Drug Policy

New Zealand Drug Foundation

Washington Office on Latin America

Espolea Mexico

Asociación Costarricense para el Estudio e Intervención en Drogas (Aceid)

Uganda Harm Reduction Network

Persaudaraan Korban Napza Indonesia - PKNI


Mainline Foundation the Netherlands

Rumah Cemara (Indonesia)

Forum Droghe – Italy

Federation Addiction

Transnational Institute (TNI)


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