27/06/2013 07:05 BST | Updated 25/08/2013 06:12 BST

Drug Policy Reform Momentum: Where Is the International Development Community?

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Drug policy reform advocates have some reason to be upbeat these days. Momentum for reassessing the existing prohibitionist international policy framework is gathering in different corners of the world. New, unusual suspects are joining the debate, providing fresh perspectives and challenging entrenched positions.

Consider, for instance, the Organization of American States (OAS), not precisely known for its propensity to challenge the status quo in the Western Hemisphere. In May it released a nuanced yet frank report on the drug problem in the Americas and the devastating effects of drug-related organized crime and violence in producer and transit countries, calling for a more flexible approach to drug policy. In a similar vein, at the end of last year the UK House of Commons Home Affairs Committee came out (PDF) urging Her Majesty's Government to monitor closely the legalization and regulation of cannabis for non-medical use in several US states as well as Portugal's experience with depenalisation (PDF). Led by regional powerhouse Mexico where drug wars have killed some 60,000 in the past seven years alone, several Latin American governments successfully pushed for holding the next UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016 and not 2019, as originally planned. No doubt, the momentum for drug policy change is building up.

Yet, one sector has been conspicuously absent from this quest: the international development community. With some notable exceptions like Germany's Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) (PDF) , bilateral and multilateral aid agencies have resisted participating in the debate, shying away from acknowledging that the production, trade and use of illicit drugs is their business too. Poverty, inequality and economic shocks can increase the vulnerability of countries vis-à-vis drugs and the associated public health problems, as well as organized crime and violence. And drugs and repressive counter-drug policies are known to contribute to deepening underdevelopment through, for instance, corruption, violence and macroeconomic instability.

Of particularly concern for development agencies should be that there are indications that the effectiveness of development programmes may be undermined by not integrating drug issues. A few non-governmental development organizations and research centers are just beginning to grasp some of these inconvenient truths.

What explains this reticence on the part of the development community to engage with drugs issues? Why is there so little interest in spite of the fact that in a growing number of countries reducing poverty, strengthening governance and curbing corruption is also dependent on tackling complex drugs and drug policy problems?

The Global Drug and Development Policy Roundup, held at the Sussex-based Institute of Development Studies in February, provided insights into why it is difficult for the development community to engage with drugs and drug policy issues, and what would be actionable ways to increase much-needed cooperation between development and drug policy experts and practitioners.

Despite a shared commitment to enhancing human well being the two policy communities are not on the same wavelength. Many people working in international development do not readily see what their role could and should be in addressing problems related to the production, trade and use of drugs that impact negatively on poverty reduction, livelihoods and governance. Their focus is essentially operational and on development issues and activities in individual countries, and not on the larger, global policy issues that are at the core of the work of drug policy reformers. The latter's principal aim is to reform the existing ineffective and harmful prohibitionist international drug control regime. Development practitioners lack the time, expertise and leverage to take on broader drug policy reform issues and are, if anything, concerned with the question of how development could be achieved in drugs-affected environments.

Further, many governments still stigmatize drug users, portraying and treating them as offenders rather than people in need of health and social attention. For the most part bilateral aid agencies find it difficult to come to terms with illicit drugs, an issue which for many governments and politicians remains an anathema. It is easier and politically less risky to defend the stance, however mistaken, that the production, trade and use of illicit drugs - and the associated corruption and organized crime - are essentially law enforcement and security problems which fall within the remit of police forces, and defense and foreign ministries. Short term policy cycles too work against building commitment to necessarily longer-term strategies of integrating drug and development policies. The mainstreaming of illicit drugs issues into development programmes in source countries, such as Afghanistan and Colombia, has had little success thus far.

Motivated by their own fundamental interest in enhancing human wellbeing and reducing poverty many more development organizations should start focusing systematically on drugs issues, thereby seeking to contribute to mitigating the negative impact drugs and drug policies have on poverty reduction and development.

A Global Drug and Development Policy Network, championed by development organizations (including one or two donor agencies) with policy capacity, convening power and an interest in making a bold contribution to moving the debate forward and identifying inroads for policy reform, would be a step in the right direction.

Such a network should look at producing quality and operational research, including on how tackling poverty in countries affected by drug problems can relate to global drug policy reform, mobilizing stakeholders in different world regions and promoting dialogue on the nexus between drugs and development to strengthen much-needed comparative perspectives. Let's bring development in - there's no way round it.