Hurt by Bad Policy: Why the Most Vulnerable Are Needed for Better Drug Policies

First published on the Central European University School of Public Policy website.

Farmers who make a living growing opium are not the enemy, according to panelists at the debate entitled “Drugs and Development: Punishing the Poor,” held February 20 as part of the Central European University School of Public Policy (SPP) debate series co-sponsored by the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. These farmers are often poor and uneducated, living in isolated rural areas controlled by drug traffickers. They need to be brought into the dialogue about policy, the panel concluded.

“The cultivation of drugs is a sign of poverty rather than a sign of wealth,” said Julia Buxton, head of International Relations and Security Studies, Peace Studies, at the University of Bradford, UK. “Development policy emphasizes community participation, but we cannot engage with drug producers because they are viewed as criminals. We cannot develop inclusive strategies until they are viewed as participants rather than criminals.”

Farmers, rural governments, international organizations, law enforcement bodies, health care providers, and drug-dependent individuals must be included in the policy formation process because the issue is much more complex than the “war on drugs” would imply. Rather than a “war,” our treatment of the drug problem must be approached as a development issue, a security issue, and a health issue, the panelists said.

There has been some success in addressing the supply side of the issue, according to William Byrd, a development economist who is senior Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “In Thailand, they spent 20 to 30 years developing citizenship, and with this you can get people away from [the drug trade]. Drugs are a long-term rural development issue and must be approached comprehensively.”

That is not a global solution, however, Byrd emphasized, because production merely shifts to another country with poor governance, as it did from Thailand to Burma and to Afghanistan. The latter now produces 90 percent of the world’s non-pharmaceutical opiates. This is why the demand side must also be addressed, which was the subject of the first debate in the series in November 2012. At that event, as well as the February 20 debate, participants advocated decriminalization and a harm reduction approach to treating drug users.

“I tend to be biased toward making a difference in the big picture,” said Byrd. “Whether I was a minister in a European or a developing country, I would try to push the international regime. At the national level, for example in Afghanistan, some ministers could interact with leaders from Latin America to come to a better understanding of the problems and potential solutions”.

In Latin America, on the demand side, some progress is being made in shifting toward harm reduction, at least in the rhetoric of several former presidents. On the supply side, the issue of inclusion of farmers is crucial, according to Javier Gonzales Skaric, technical director of the Observatory of Crops Declared Illicit.

“Whoever puts up the money for development, manages the development,” Gonzales Skaric said. “It is easy in the minds of the people designing the project—substitute coca with coffee in Bolivia. But we haven’t given the opportunity for peasants to show us what kind of development they want.”

The conference concluded with a challenging question posed by SPP Dean Wolfgang Reinicke, who asked on which policy aspects SPP students should focus, and what they might seek to achieve if they choose to tackle this complex global problem. The panelists responded by saying students could make a difference on a number of levels: local, national or international, and in the social, economic, security or political fields. SPP’s inaugural class will arrive in September 2013 to begin a two-year Master of Public Administration program.

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