Why are Illegal Drugs still a Cinderella Issue in Development? (Looking at you CGD!)

September 15, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Why don’t more mainstream aid organizations work on the issue of illegal drugs like cannabis, coca or opium poppy? We’ve known for decades that the prevalent approach to these – prohibition – harms small-scale farmers that grow them, fuels violence, undermines the rule of law and contaminates politics (the UN estimates the illegal drugs trade is worth $500bn a year – that buys you a lot of politicians).

I focussed on this ‘why change doesn’t happen’ topic in my 7 minutes of fame on a panel last week, organized by a logotastic smorgasbord of thinktanks and NGOs in the ‘drug policy’ community. The other speakers were making an impassioned case for ‘legal regulation’ (we don’t call it legalization/decriminalization any more, apparently) as an alternative to prohibition, including launching these rather good 20 principles for how to approach it.

Helen Clark, who has just taken over as Chair of Global Commission on Drug Policy kicked off with a summary of the case for treating drugs as a development and health issue, and concluded ‘‘we see no justification for any punishment for drug use’. Blimey.

My question was, why aren’t more development organizations listening?

I went back to my customary formula for unpacking the forces of inertia – ideas, interests and institutions.

Ideas: Over a century of prohibition has framed drugs in a really unhelpful way for those wanting to talk about development. All the people you would want to be part of finding a solution are stigmatized – people who use drugs, people who cultivate drugs, distributors. Drug ‘fetishism’ treats ‘drugs’ as a separate, uniquely harmful substance, when tobacco kills 10 times more people than all illegal drugs put together. It doesn’t mean tobacco should be illegal, but that makes it really hard to say, ‘drugs are just one crop for small farmers, let’s look at how they fare in the supply chain’ or ‘drugs users/growers have human rights’ or any other approach other than ‘lock em up and/or wipe out their crop’.

Institutions: I ran a quick twitter poll (results below) before the seminar asking people why they think drugs remain such a Cinderella issue in development, and of the 200+ replies, the overwhelming (64%) response was ‘reputational risk’. That needs unpacking, though. Maybe development organizations see drugs as a ‘poisoned chalice’ – likely to get them into trouble either with the Daily Mail, funders or the authorities (eg on counter-terrorism and money laundering rules). It doesn’t help that the main arena for the drugs trade are the ‘borderlands’ – marginal areas far from capital cities where the state is weak or absent. The issue of ‘fragile and conflict-affected settings’ is a major headache for aid organizations who are used to working with/through the state.

Why is legalization still taboo?

Interests: I’m guessing here, but if I was a drug lord (OK, bit of a stretch, but bear with me), I might see legal regulation as a threat and shovel some money to people in power to stop it happening – any evidence of that?

Despite these blockers, it feels like the ground is shifting. This is most noticeable on cannabis, and at national levels. Over 50 countries have moved to legally regulate it for medical use. The international system is lagging behind, but some institutions eg UNDP have got interested, along with some INGOs like Health Poverty Action (which led the work on this webinar) and  Christian Aid. Big beasts in the human rights community have also come on board.

Interestingly, this is not 100% positive. As cannabis becomes legit, the private sector is rushing in to occupy the new markets, commercialize and excluding small-scale, traditional producers. There’s a real risk that legal regulation might be even worse than prohibition in entrenching inequality and marginalising small growers.

What might help legal regulation advocates broaden the coalition? Proving they are right (again!) may not actually be that helpful. My advice was to invest in understanding the blockers and thinking through what might persuade them to change their minds. If you can show that legal regulation is a more effective counter-terrorism strategy than prohibition (by depriving terrorist organizations of income) that might be more effective than development arguments in winning over the diplomats and security interests.

Ann Fordham, one of the other speakers, also points out ‘legal regulation is now happening – it is a reality. The ask from the drug policy sector right now is not necessarily to help advocate for legal regulation but to step into the political reality and ensure that how it is implemented doesn’t simply make corporations rich and poor farmers poorer (or totally cut out!).’

One final point – this discussion reminded me of the whole debate on migration. There, a bunch of economists and lobbyists are convinced that migration is a good thing, and that governments have got it seriously wrong. They also tend to rely on evidence (‘see, I’m right, why don’t you listen?’). Which made me wonder why one of the most influential thinktanks on migration – the Center for Global Development – hasn’t jumped on the legal regulation issue. Sounds right up their street. Over to you CGD.

The webinar kicked off a set of 8 discussions on legal regulation and its links to specific development issues such as climate change, sustainable livelihoods and tax justice, taking place over the next few months. Details here.

Thanks to Zara Snapp, Clemmie James and Ann Fordham for comments on an earlier draft of this post

And here’s the webinar video

And finally, hot off the press, here are IDPC’s 20 Principles for Legal Regulation of Cannabis (if you can read them)

20 principles