Time for a drug policy reset

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted adversely not only on health and well-being, but also on societies and economies in general. In so doing, it has shed a glaring light on the interconnectedness of our world, on the challenges it faces, and on the need to tackle complex issues coherently.

For years, policy research has been advocating breaking silos and adopting crosscutting and holistic approaches. Yet, old habits die hard. In practice, silos and incoherence are still very common. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates that. Drug policy is another example of incoherent approaches, and a very vivid and long-running one.


Over the last half century, drug prohibition created a huge illegal drug market—estimated to be worth around half a trillion dollars every year. This has contributed to organized crime becoming immensely rich, with the capacity to corrupt law enforcement, penetrate banking and financial institutions, and corrode law and order.

It has also unleashed violence on communities as organized crime fights for its share of the trade. In parallel, law enforcement abuses during the enforcement of prohibition have exacerbated discrimination, inequalities, and distrust for the law among certain communities.


Today, organized crime is keen to preserve its control of drugs. Maintaining the current prohibition system simply plays into its hands. It enables, for example, criminal organizations to put pressure on traditional farmers of plant-based drugs to enhance their production and reduce their prices.

It reinforces the grip which organized crime has on communities around the world where they represent a shadow state, providing welfare, security, and support. These criminal elites survive on being benefactors of communities. They have access to legal, media, and banking services as needed, and they escape sanctions, while prisons are being filled with impoverished consumers and low-level dealers and producers.

Governments in Asia and the Pacific must embrace the complexity of these issues and recognize that they can only fight organized crime through international cooperation and with a consistent approach—one that shifts its focus from consumers of drugs to organized crime and to its enormous profits laundered every day, with impunity, around the world.

No one denies that decriminalization of drug use and a better approach to transnational organized crime is a difficult discussion, especially among those who do not break the current drug laws. The reality nevertheless remains that drug laws are among the most breached laws in the world; millions of people across countries consume drugs classified as illegal daily.

Laws and norms must be able to be questioned, discussed, amended, and terminated as needed. Our societies must be mature enough to accept that laws should adapt to scientific progress and societal changes, and that new concerns and new findings do emerge. Yet in drug policy, innovative approaches have often been a taboo subject.

Governments need to recognize that current drug strategies are not providing the expected result of reducing the demand for and use of drugs, and that these strategies actually support the creation of a lucrative market for transnational organized crime. People will continue to consume psychoactive substances, whether others like that or not. Banning those substances reinforces illegal markets and boosts criminal interests. Expecting individuals who use drugs to change their behavior because they have been punished is not realistic.

Without the prohibition of drugs creating a lucrative market, organized crime would probably not now be equipped with military-style equipment and trained men in their thousands. Over 100,000 people would not lose their lives each year to overdoses or dangerous mixtures of drugs. Law enforcement would not be feared by communities because of interventions perceived as unjust against consumers. Instead, law enforcement would find support in its social mission to track down criminals—which is our shared wish.


A comprehensive reset of public policy should follow the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time to take a step back and reflect, including on difficult issues like drug policy. Drug laws should be subjected to reviews based on research and experience. Organized crime’s profits should be undermined by decriminalizing drug use and investing in evidence-based and inclusive programming to address health and social issues. Effective policing and anti-money laundering tools should be deployed to track down the criminal elites which are doing damage to the fabric of societies.

Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand; Geoff Gallop, former premier of Western Australia; and José Ramos-Horta, former president of Timor-Leste—all three authors are members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

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