As we approach the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS), the voices clamoring for drug policy reform are getting louder. But within the narrow parameters of the UN system, what does reform really mean? After all, when it comes to drug policy, one of the main tasks of the UN is to ensure compliance with international treaties related to drug use, and to provide a framework for evaluation so that countries can assess the impact their policies are making on drug use and supply.
So is all the anticipation over UNGASS misplaced, given the UN’s emphasis on evaluation rather than reform? Not exactly. It has become clear that the way countries evaluate their drug policies dictates the kinds of outcomes that governments are seeking to highlight. Simply put, reform begins with taking a hard look at what governments are prioritizing in their drug policy evaluations.
For example, are they more interested in the amount of illegal drugs that law enforcement officers seize annually, or on the proportion of their citizens with some kind of substance use disorder? Are they more interested in determining the price of illegal drugs, or in the number of people who inject drugs that are infected with HIV or hepatitis C?
In both of the aforementioned examples, governments more often than not prioritize the first metric. And yet, those first metrics tell us very little about how drug policies impact communities in the real world. What’s increasingly clear, then, is that to attain the drug policy–related outcomes we want to see, UN agencies and countries all over the world must begin with revising the metrics they use to evaluate drug policy.
That’s why scientists from around the world have released an open letter calling for UNGASS to include a formal commitment by UN agencies and member states to use a wider and more relevant set of metrics in evaluating their drug policies. The key is to ensure the relevance of these metrics to communities affected by drugs and drug policies, so that policies reflect community needs and values.
For instance, in the current status quo, officials see high numbers of people incarcerated for drug crimes as a sign of policy success. But focusing on that metric leads to policies that prioritize seizing drugs over treating the harms of drug addiction. It’s likely that measuring the proportion of people with substance use disorders who have access to evidence-based treatment will tell us much more about how drugs are affecting communities, and how effective the policy response is.
This is just one example of how, to ensure a sustained commitment to reform, the UN must commit to reassessing how it conceives of success and failure when it comes to drugs and drug-related harms. That commitment starts with the metrics that UN agencies and member states use to evaluate drug policy. With such a commitment, the process will lead the global community to the creation of drug policies that prioritize health, safety, development, and human rights.