Rewriting history

A response to the 2008 World Drug Report
TNI Drug Policy Briefing Nr. 26
June 2008

dpb26The world today is not any closer to achieving the ten-year targets set by the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs. These goals were “eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008.” Instead global production of opiates and cocaine has significantly increased over the last ten years. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) global illicit opium production doubled from 4,346 tons in 1998 to 8,800 tons in 2007. This is mainly due to the massive increase in opium production in Afghanistan. The estimated global cocaine production increased from 825 tons in 1998 to 994 tons in 2007, an increase of 20%.

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In the past decade international drug control emphasised eradication of illicit crops, before having alternative livelihoods in place. Hundreds of thousands of peasants have been condemned to poverty and robbed of a life in dignity. In several key producing countries, crop eradication has aggravated violent conflict rather than contributing to conflict resolution. By 2007 Afghanistan was producing some 8,200 tons of opium, or 93% of global production. These record production levels have led to more aggressive forced eradication of opium crops. Apart from causing immense suffering to local communities, these campaigns have significantly contributed to the growing insecurity in the country.

In Colombia, ten years of indiscriminate aerial spraying of coca crops have failed to reduce coca cultivation, while creating a vicious circle of human, social and environmental damage, displacement, human right violations and fuelled the decades-old civil conflict in the country.

Opium production in the Golden Triangle (Burma, Thailand and Laos) – once the world’s largest producer – has indeed declined from 1.435 metric tons in 1998 to 472 metric tons in 2007, or 5% of global production. Those who are paying the price for this trend are the opium farmers, who need the income from opium to buy food and medicines.


• The 1998 UNGASS targets of reducing opium and coca cultivation have not been met. In the last ten years global opium production doubled and cocaine production increased with 20%.

• The WDR uses twisted logic to fabricate comparisons with higher opium production a century ago, and the figures used in the report are controversial.

• China did not have ‘tens of millions of opium addicts’. Opium use in China was mostly moderate and relatively non-problematic, often for medical use.

• Early international drug control agreements helped to reduce legal production and trade; the current UN conventions have not curbed the illicit market.

• It is a mystery how a comparison between 1000 tonnes of cocaine produced now for an illicit market and the 15 tonnes licitly produced before cocaine was under international control can be presented as a success.

• The zero-tolerance punitive framework that replaced the early regulatory model resulted in the unintended consequences mentioned in the WDR.

• The prohibition regime has led to limited availability of essential medicines.

• The current approach to drug control has failed. Instead of unrealistic targets, there is a need for a more rational, pragmatic and humane approach.

• The WDR proposals to make the system ‘fit for purpose’ by a focus on crime prevention, harm reduction and human rights are welcome, but require the undoing of the punitive nature of the treaties.


Instead of a picture of natural evolution of control and containment over a century as sketched in the WDR, in our view the UN drug control treaty system marked an undesirable shift from a predominantly regulatory model to a zero-tolerance punitive framework, bringing with it all the unintended consequences that the WDR mentions. The regulatory aspects of the early agreements may have helped to bring totally unrestricted legal production and trade under control and to reduce some of its negative consequences. However, the three currently existing conventions have pushed restrictions and sanctions too far, have lowered access to essential medicines under their control to irresponsible levels, and can definitely not claim to have curbed the illicit market.

There are clear benefits to having an international control system in place, and UNODC has made a most welcome shift towards advocacy for human rights and harm reduction to become key pillars of drug control in the future. However, the way the WDR tries to relate a dubious claim of hundred years of success to the currently prevailing drug control model undermines the urgency for reform. The welcome proposals in the WDR to make the system ‘fit for purpose’ by focussing on crime prevention, harm reduction and human rights require some fundamental changes in the now universalised criminalizing nature of the system.

As a UK House of Commons report concluded, “If there is any single lesson from the experience of the last 30 years, it is that policies based wholly or mainly on enforcement are destined to fail.” Instead of setting unrealistic targets, we need to introduce a more rational, pragmatic and humane approach to the global drugs phenomenon. Drug control policies should be based on evidence, fully respect human rights and take a harm reduction approach. Otherwise, we will see another ten years of failure.