07/05/2015 16:37 BST | Updated 07/05/2016 06:59 BST

Drugs Are a Development Issue - It's Time for a New Approach

On Thursday 7 May, the UN will hold a meeting in New York looking ahead and making plans for a major event in 2016 - the UN Special Session in April 2016 (UNGASS 2016) where governments will gather to discuss whether and how to reform global drugs policy.

The meeting builds on months of preparations already underway, including at the annual session in March of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), a UN body responsible for supervising the world's illicit drug control system.

Thursday 7 May also marks International Harm Reduction Day where protesters will gather outside the UN to demand an end to the death penalty for non-violent drugs offences, in reaction to Indonesia recently executing eight people for drug trafficking. Others will show their solidarity on Twitter using the hashtag #IStandForMercy.

Put simply, there has never been a more important time to talk about global drugs policy.

Momentum has been building for an end to the so-called War on Drugs - the strict prohibition approach, which tries to force people to stop possessing, using and producing drugs by making them illegal, and which has dominated global drug policy since the mid-twentieth century.

This approach has not only failed to achieve its goals - it is fuelling poverty, undermining health, and failing some of the poorest and most marginalised communities worldwide.

That's why, in 2012, the Presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico called for the UNGASS to be held in 2016 (rather than 2019 as originally planned). The UN Secretary General has urged member states to use the UNGASS to "conduct a wide ranging and open debate that considers all options".

The high-level debate today will be the first time the UNGASS will be substantively discussed in New York and provides a unique opportunity to give discussions on the future of global drug policy the urgency and prominence that is required.

The War on Drugs - a system of strict, zero-tolerance drug policies, often backed up with military force - has a severe impact on some of the poorest communities worldwide. It involves locking up people who use drugs, leads to human rights abuses by the police and military (usually against the most vulnerable people in society), blocks access to essential medicines in some of the world's poorest countries, and diverts money away from public services. The poorest farmers - those who lack the land and resources to make a sustainable living - are the most likely to get involved in the drug trade, because they don't have any other viable options.

At a conservative estimate, enforcing anti-drug policies costs at least US$100 billion a year globally, rivalling the $130 billion worldwide aid budget. Just like tax dodging, climate change and unfair trade rules, current global drug policies undermine global efforts to tackle poverty and inequality.

In February, Health Poverty Action launched a report calling for the global development sector to rethink its approach to the failing War on Drugs. Entitled 'Casualties of War: How the War on Drugs is harming the world's poorest', the report emphasises how drugs policy is very much a development issue.

As governments, policy makers, academics and civil society gather together, it is time to call for a new approach that puts public health, human rights and development at the heart of global drugs policy.

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