Interview of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Research Handbook on International Drug Policy

Drug policy attracted much attention in the last decade, with the momentum of reforms on the ground, the UNGASS 2016 on drugs, and the recent wave of drug legalization or legally condoned extrajudicial killings. Why do you consider the Research Handbook timely, and what is its place in the existing literature on drug policy?

There is an important, and constantly growing, literature on drug control policies that examines different aspects of drug control, usually in a national, local or regional framework. Moreover, drug policy analysis usually falls short of providing a comprehensive view when focused on one area of research, and needs a multidisciplinary approach, inclusive of social, political and ethnological studies, as much as criminology, international relations and medicine. Combined with the lack of a definite assessment of what is going on in the world, since the UN World Drug Report’s reporting focuses only on data reported by states and based on partial information of seizures or arrests, we felt the need to provide through a new Research Handbook a global, most comprehensive possible state of affairs. This, in turn, allows for better understanding of the interlinked issues related to drugs and to help prepare better public responses. The other major reason behind the Research Handbook was the opportunity to gather the most senior and prominent researchers, along with up-and-coming promising researchers in drug policy, thus allowing for analyses that include the established views, as well as innovative ones. Therefore, this handbook is an opportunity to prepare the future in substance, in process and in stakeholder’ inclusion.    

Following fifty years of strong consensus on the need to eliminate drug use, production and trafficking, the last decade has seen a growing disagreement among the international community on how to control drugs. What are your findings on the global discussions around drug policy, and where are they headed?

The consensus between UN Member States party to the three international drug control conventions has been clear and unwavering between the adoption of the first convention in 1961 and the adoption of the political declaration on drugs in 2008: any use of recreational drugs must disappear from the world. This objective, which has no empirical link with reality, has not only been missed but production, use and trafficking have been steadily growing over the last decades (data collection is recent, since the mid-1990s). To add up to this major issue of a system that falls short to achieve any of its stated objective, the other promise of the international drug control regime, which is the access at-scale to essential controlled medicines, has been completely left out of the global discussion. This is how the world ends up with the vast majority of controlled medicines for pain relief being concentrated in developed countries, while low and middle-income countries’ citizens have virtually no access and suffer without legitimate relief.

Along with these shortages of the drug control regime, there are what the UN itself has been referring to since 2008 as the ‘unintended’ consequences of drug control. These include the illegal market and its related violence and resources to organised crime; policy and budget displacement towards repression; as well as geographic displacement of social, economic and security issues as the war on drugs escalates. One can add to that, under a repressive control regime, high rates of arrests leading to severe prison overcrowding; which consequently, is increasing incidence and prevalence of infectious diseases (i.e. HIV, tuberculosis, and COVID-19), problematic drug use in unsafe conditions, and mental health issues facilities of deprivation of liberty, including prisons. Furthermore, these cycles of arrests and incarcerations fuel systemic poverty and crippling sustainable development targets.  

With these elements in hand, some countries have started to be more vocal on the lack of results and the negative impact of drug control. Some also started changing their own policies to cope with the serious consequences they face. Yet, this is not an easy issue in any country, and evidence shows that repression, because of the size of the market and its complex ramifications, is indeed needed. This repression, to be efficient, needs to be nevertheless focused on the most dangerous elements in organised crime, and not focus on nonviolent and lower rank workers in the illicit economy. Proportionate sentences, alongside non-punitive measures towards nonviolent stakeholders, are the key to the effectiveness of an evidence based drug policy.

In the Research Handbook, two sections address the growing tensions and the upcoming challenges of drug control. You have stated many issues related to drug control policies that are far from being solved, but what are the emerging trends and problems that are exacerbated by current punitive policies?

This is one of the main questions behind this handbook. Indeed, old issues related to plant-based and synthetic drugs that are known and scheduled are not resolved and keep increasing. The drug control system manages at best, and contains as much as it can, but does not provide results proportionate to the investment it represents or the harms it causes. This is how, on top of the existing problems, many new ones came from every dimension and added up. The Research Handbook addresses many of the tension between countries, starting by the objective of drug control itself: is a drug-free world realistic? Does it allow for pragmatic policies on the ground? Other chapters look into the tensions between the commitments to drug policy normative obligations and human rights obligations, and the possibility to enforce harsh and oftentimes disproportionate policies without violating fundamental rights. Other major trends that were looked into in the handbook include the crypto illegal market and the displacement of dealing from the street to the dark net; the legalisation of drugs in national frameworks while the issues at hand are transnational; or the tensions around more transparent and efficient data collection on the ground. 

Full citation of the research handbook

  • Dave Bewley-Taylor, and Khalid Tinasti, eds. Research Handbook on International Drug Policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. 2020.
  • Interview by Ahsan Ahmad, Research Associate, Yale School of Medicine; Visiting Research Associate at the Centre of Excellence for Research in AIDS (CERiA) at University Malaya


Ahmad A.