The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

Reform Principles

A nation’s drug policy should protect the well-being of the citizenship. Its challenge is to target minimisation of harms and avoidance of problematic drug-use while also respecting basic civil and human rights. The 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs made it clear that the ultimate objective of the system was the improvement of the ‘health and welfare of mankind’. Fifty years on, we must examine how successful the UN Conventions have been at achieving these goals.

There are many experiences of drug policy innovation around the world that represent steps away from a repressive zero-tolerance model towards a more humane and evidence-based drug policy. Given the harms done by, and costs of, current drug control regimes, the importance of considering a fresh look at new options has never been greater.

The Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy Reform suggest a number of principles on which Drug Policy should be based. The following principles can help guide politicians and policy makers in the right direction:

1) Evidence-Based

Any changes or new policies should be based upon the evaluation of policies and experience in practice, instead of being based on ideological principles of abstinence.Control of drugs should reflect empirical evidence related to the potential harms and benefits of each substance. Attention needs to be paid to the lessons from the small number of jurisdictions that have implemented drug policy reforms, the key example being the decriminalisation of illegal drugs for personal use in Portugal.[1] These countries have experimented and seen  beneficial results.

2) Differentiation

It is necessary to differentiate between different substances and between different patterns of use. The health risks of cannabis consumption are not the same as those of heroin or crack cocaine [2]. There are also significant disparities in effects and risks between natural plants and their concentrated derivatives. The coca plant can be used safely and with benefits to health [3]. Indeed, the US embassy in La Paz, Bolivia offers coca to guests suffering from altitude sickness. However, consumption of cocaine – a concentrated extract of one of the active compounds of coca – can lead to serious health problems. Importantly, there are substantial differences between patterns of occasional, recreational substance-use and problematic, dependent patterns. It would be misleading to equate occasional or experimental use of a drug with heavy, harmful use. Recognising that drug-use is associated with a complexity of outcomes in terms of health and social harms, drug policy reforms should concentrate on harm-reduction.

3) Harm-reduction

It should be clear at this stage in history, especially in light of the past fifty years, that a world without drugs is not plausible [4]. The ideology of ‘zero tolerance’ needs to be replaced by the principle of harm reduction, where it is accepted that drug-use is inevitable and the goal should be to reduce the harm associated with that use. This would offer a more pragmatic approach that would allow for the amelioration of harms through treatment and healthcare, and the removal of the social, financial, bureaucratic and personal damages caused by the criminalisation of drug-users.

4) Flexibility and Cultural Sensitivity

Socio-cultural differences need to be taken into account. The laws that are established at the global level should leave sufficient flexibility for nations to adjust them as appropriate in the context of the national socio-cultural history and circumstance. The rights of indigenous groups to continue their practices and customs must be upheld.

5) Human Rights and Proportionality

Drug control should fully respect human rights, which means that any sanctions should be proportional to the crime. Examples of disproportionality include: punishing drug-users for possession of small quantities; destruction of the crops and farmland of producers who have no other form of income available; heavy prison sentences against small traders; and issuing the death penalty for drug offences. In Ecuador, drug crimes have often received heavier penalties than murder.

6) Development

Drug control efforts should never lead to more poverty and hunger – as currently happens with the bans on opium and the forced eradication of coca crops. The destruction of agricultural economies involved in the cultivation of illegal drugs without the creation of alternative livelihoods creates significant popular resentment.

7) Civil Society Participation

When formulating policies on drugs there should be full attention paid to all parties affected by the legislation. Moreover, the integration of that policy should be a collaborative effort between political leaders, government agencies, law enforcement bodies, farmers, users, health care practitioners, schools and specialised NGOs. This is the only way to ensure that policies are rooted in the best available evidence and are effective in addressing the salient problems that neccesitate their creation. Building a popular constituency supportive of drug policy reforms is essential for their success in the long term. As with any changes in the law, the beneficial effects of any drug policy reform are dependent upon being allowed to operate for a reasonable amount of time.


[1] See for example: Allen, L, Trace, M & Klein, A (2004), Decriminalisation of Drugs in Portugal: A Current Overview, DrugScope and The Beckley Foundation, London

[2] Nutt, D, King, L, Saulsbury, W & Blakemore, C (2007) Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harm of Drugs of Potential Misuse

[3] Weil, A (1981) The Therapeutic Value of Coca in Contemporary Medicine, Journal of Ethnopharmacology

[4] See for example the message from the 1998 UN Special Session of the General Assembly on Countering the World Drug Problem – “A Drug Free World – We Can Do It!”. Ten years later, in 2008, the goal of “eliminating or significantly reducing” the drug trade had changed into “achieving significant and measurable results” in drug control.” Decades of strict, prohibitive drug control regimes has not decreased drug-use.

[5] See for example: Seccombe (1995) Squeezing the Balloon: International Drugs Policy. Drug and Alcohol Review