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close this bookIllicit Drugs: Social Impacts and Policy Responses (UNRISD, 1994, 19 p.)
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View the documentUNRISD
View the documentSUMMARY
View the documentINTRODUCTION
Open this folder and view contentsTHE ILLICIT DRUG PROBLEM: WHY HAS IT BECOME WORSE?
Open this folder and view contentsPOLICY OPTIONS: WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
View the documentCONCLUSIONS


Despite long-standing attempts to dismantle the illicit drug trade, drug abuse and its many related problems are on the increase in many regions of the world. The scale of the problem is enormous: the amount of laundered money from the traffic in cocaine, heroin and cannabis is estimated to be larger than the gross national product of three quarters of the world’s economies. The impact of illicit drugs continues to threaten the economies and social structures of both producing and consuming countries. Globalization of markets and finance, development of computer and communications technology, and the declining significance of national borders have all helped to facilitate drug trafficking. Policy strategies need to take account of the forces contributing to the complexity of the situation and attack the problem from several angles.

The present policies have had limited success for a number of reasons. Supply suppression strategies have proven unable to raise the price of illicit drugs in consuming countries. Demand suppression strategies - drug control laws that assume that people will be deterred from drug use by fear of incarceration or fines - are least likely to be effective in those sections of society where the drug use problem is most serious. Most drug control strategies have proven difficult to implement effectively, particularly in less developed countries with weak national governments lacking institutional co-ordination and sufficient financial resources. Alternative development strategies require a new, more “people-centred” approach to community problems which may not work if the necessary staff and financial resources are lacking.

Political considerations often play a greater role in determining approaches to the drug problem than do considerations of effectiveness. Supply suppression is a more politically acceptable policy initiative than decriminalization, and this more than any proven success it has had in reducing the illicit drug problem - accounts for its popularity with governments. Political considerations also lead to an emphasis on short-term as opposed to long-term solutions: in consuming countries, drug control laws are preferred to the longer process of value change or socio-economic structural change. In producing countries, short-term crop suppression strategies are preferred to “alternative development”, which would entail years of dependence on external aid.

Even if alternative development were to be successful in one drug producing area, other regions would be likely to take up the slack in production, leaving the global supply of drugs unaffected. Any policy strategy thus has to be region-specific (including differing strategies for urban and rural areas), but must also take into account the international dimensions of the illicit drug problem and how policy decisions taken by other countries will affect its outcome. Similarly, appropriate policy has to be devised for specific target groups (producers and consumers, and the different social segments of each population) and for the specific drug produced, marketed or consumed. Policies for marijuana would thus be very different from those addressing the problem of crack cocaine.

No one policy option is going to solve the illicit drug problem. In the context of the severity of the current drug crisis, however, it is to be hoped that a balanced and more thorough examination of the advantages and limitations of all the available policy options will lead to more imaginative and constructive policy formulations. In particular, it is important to recognize the joint responsibility of both producing and consuming countries, and therefore the need for shared and coherent policy approaches. In addition, policy strategies must address the causes of the problem rather than its symptoms: in consuming countries, drug abuse is often linked to unemployment, poor housing and health care in marginal communities, while in producing countries, drug production is closely linked to the failure of rural development.