26/03/2014 13:15 GMT | Updated 27/05/2014 06:59 BST

Why Nick Clegg Is Right on Drug Policy

Nick Clegg's timely recent intervention on the failures of the global war on drugs, and advocacy of an alternative strategy, is an important call to arms that other political leaders should heed.

Nick Clegg's timely recent intervention on the failures of the global war on drugs, and advocacy of an alternative strategy, is an important call to arms that other political leaders should heed.

Over the next few years, the world has an opportunity with the upcoming 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs to fundamentally remake international drug policies. Between now and then, governments will try to hammer out a framework for a global drug strategy for the coming decade.

The stakes could not be higher. In 2012 LSE Ideas, a think tank at the London School of Economics, produced a report on the current global 'war on drugs' strategy. It concluded that no serious scholar questioned that this strategy had failed and was worsening problems of human security and socioeconomic development. The report also argued that the international system, governed through the United Nations, was in fact facilitating systemic human rights abuses in the name of drug control.

Increasingly, as Nick Clegg pointed out, governments in Latin America are unwilling to bear the human and economic cost of this failed war. They are not the only ones however.

Many governments in Europe rejected the 'war on drugs' mentality long ago and instead pursued public health based policies prioritising harm reduction and treatment. The results have been impressive, particularly in comparison to states like the United States which pursued a vigorous prohibitionist approach only to witness an explosion in HIV transmission rates and the growth of mass incarceration. Today, however, even Washington DC is rejecting the 'war' mentality in favour of regulatory experimentation (as in the case of marijuana) as well as moves to consider drugs as a treatment and public health issue.

To be sure, at the international level support for a militarised and punitive war on drugs still has some notable backers. Chief among these is Russia, and it is supported by the deeply conservative drug policy institutions centred at the UN. However, for Russia and its allies, the prospect of maintaining a unified global approach seems increasingly unlikely.

The past strategy was based on the goal of achieving 'a drug free world'. The tactics intended to achieve this were the suppression of supply through interdiction and eradication, and reduction in demand through largely repressive policies including criminalisation. The choice now is between maintaining the broken status quo or pursuing evidence-based policies that facilitate economic development, protect public health and ensure respect for human rights.

2014 will be a key year in determining the outcome of this international debate. Analysts point to a number of key indicators and processes that suggest the prospects for a major shift in policy by 2016.

The first is whether states continue to move away from the unreachable goal of a 'drug free world'. The alternative, and more appropriate policy, will be to appreciate that drugs can be managed, either effectively or badly, but cannot be eradicated.

Recognising this, states should rapidly redirect global resources towards a public health model, based on proven policies of treatment and harm reduction. These will be far more effective in mitigating drug harms than spending vast resources chasing illicit commodities (and the associated violence) from one jurisdiction to another.

A second indicator will be whether the international framework, governed through the United Nations, will continue to evolve. Traditionally it has served the role of global bully, pushing back against states that pursued public health oriented policies and instead advocating policies based on a repressive prohibitionist approach.

Some improvements are already discernible. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has made some attempts to incorporate basic human rights guidelines into its work. However, major problems remain, such as using international donor money to fund repressive regimes which use the death penalty to enforce drug laws. One would hope that UNODC will continue to improve its adherence to basic principles of human rights and work to strengthen harm reduction policies at the international level.

Meanwhile, one can hope that nations will increasingly challenge the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). This agency was originally tasked with monitoring the international flow of licit drugs, but has over time appropriated a political role of advocating prohibitionist oriented policies.

The INCB has a particularly poor history of supporting deeply repressive regimes, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia in their pursuit of drug control, while castigating countries, such as Denmark, which pursue public health approaches.

Uruguay quite bravely pushed back against INCB criticism following its historic shift towards a legally regulated marijuana market in 2013. The extent to which other states show the willingness to follow Uruguay's lead in challenging the INCB will be a gauge of the prospects for comprehensive international reform. The minimum will be to ensure the INCB adheres to its core treaty obligations of ensuring access to essential medicines - something it has overwhelmingly failed to do, to the detriment of the developing world.

The next few years offer perhaps a once in a generation opportunity to recalibrate global drug policies and move towards better international management of this issue. So far the global strategy has failed by its own goals of producing a 'drug free world', but also by Hippocratic standards of 'first, do no harm'.

Managing drug issues remains one of the great global challenges of our time. If the international community fails to rise to this challenge we risk repeating the failed policies of the last century. Let us hope that other politicians muster the courage to follow the evidence, and Nick Clegg's lead.