27/05/2014 09:03 BST | Updated 25/07/2014 06:59 BST

Drug Use Is Not a Sustainable Development Issue - The War on Drugs Certainly Is

This month negotiators met at the UN in New York to discuss the Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs); government targets that will heavily influence policies through to 2030 and that will affect the lives of billions in the coming years. The SDGs are intended to address global challenges relating to our ability to survive and thrive on this planet, from climate change, poverty reduction, sustainable cities and disease prevention to functioning institutions of government. Done well, this could be transformative. But somehow (nobody seems to know how) a goal to rid the world of drug use has been included in the draft SDG document. This is harmful both for the aims of the SDGs and, given the lack of any transparency around its inclusion, for the credibility of the entire process.

The current draft includes a target to 'eliminate narcotic drug and substance abuse'. This is the essence of drug war rhetoric. But issue by issue, discipline by discipline, every canard, every straw man, every lie of the war on drugs has by now been exposed, including any pretense that a 'drug free world' is either possible or, given what it requires, a desirable goal to pursue. In fact, just as the UN negotiators were considering this target five Nobel Prize winning economists joined the growing chorus of community activists, experts and senior political figures calling for systemic change.

Aside from being a failure on its own terms (pick your indicator) the war on drugs has been a systematic human rights onslaught. It has eroded and crowded out constitutional values democratic societies should defend. It has fuelled urban violence and hindered peaceful resolution of conflicts. It has been a consistent barrier to development in producer nations. It has been a vector of disease and an economic catastrophe; billions poured down the sinkhole of tail-chasing drug enforcement at the expense of proven, life-saving harm reduction and treatment interventions.

To put it another way: the idea of a drug free world has produced and is producing effects that are anathema to everything the Sustainable Development Goals are supposed to stand for.

Now, there are some aspects of the draft SDGs that can be criticised as, for example, unachievable or immeasurable. But none are so directly harmful to the whole enterprise as this. So how did something so counterproductive make it in?

Sweden, which has a reputation for restrictive drug policies and a national goal of a 'drug free society', was credited with the suggestion. After contacting the ambassador in charge, however, we were told this was absolutely not the case. Sweden corrected the record, saying it had never proposed this target.

A group of NGOs known as the Women's Major Group was also credited with the proposal. On the contrary, the group objected strongly to it on the grounds that it had undermined so many other priorities, such as HIV prevention, and it said so forcefully at the meeting.

So the target was included outside of the official, transparent SDG procedures. But despite coming out of thin air (or perhaps, more realistically, from an arbitrary decision or error of a UN secretariat staffer) the target to eliminate drug abuse is now on the negotiating table. Once there it became part of the debate. Some States, such as Singapore, Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates liked it as it was. Others, mainly Latin American governments, wanted to amend it for an explicit focus on health, peace and security, not criminalisation (they clearly know what this well worn rhetoric means in practice). A few, including China and Indonesia, called for it to be deleted.

But the UN, of course, seeks consensus. So the upshot is that no agreement was reached and a very stupid and simplistic idea that was not officially proposed remains on the table as a baseline for negotiations by our governments. The only thing that changed after this round of debate was that any reference to where it came from is now gone.

This doesn't tell us much about the war on drugs we didn't already know. It's insidious, infectious and it undermines institutions and debates such as these. But what does it tell us about the SDG process? What faith can we have in these goals when official papers mysteriously include aims that no one wanted, falsely attributed to governments and NGOs, and that fail to display any understanding of contemporary science or politics, goals that would in their pursuit undermine precisely what the SDGs are for?

If drugs issues are to be included in the SDG targets then ideas must come from official, considered sources, including NGO consultations. They must be based on what is really happening, and real solutions, not the same discredited fantasies of the past. Drug use is not a sustainable development issue. The war on drugs certainly is.