Rehab: Shaping a More Effective Response to Drug Trafficking Worldwide

Global evidence, UN reports and scientific literature indicate that the ‘war on drugs’ has failed to achieve its objectives of eliminating or reducing the production, consumption and trafficking of illegal drugs. Furthermore, it has created major negative consequences, mostly unintended, impacting economic, social and cultural sectors. These include mass incarcerations; a thriving illegal drug market; the spread of infectious diseases; the lack of access to pain relief medication; and gross human rights violations. The panel covered essential areas where cooperation between stakeholders can lead to shaping an effective, humane and cost-effective response to drugs.

Date : 13 November 2019

Paris, France – Grande Halle de La Villette, Agora 1

Watch the full debate


  • Moderator: Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Professor of International History, Graduate Institute, Geneva
  • Gunilla Carlsson, Deputy Executive Director, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)
  • Martha DelgadoPeralta, Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Mexico
  • Ruth Dreifuss, Former President of Switzerland and Chair, Global Commission on Drug Policy
  • Svante Myrick, Mayor, City of Ithaca, New York, United States
  • Alexander Soros, Deputy Chair of the Global Board, Open Society Foundations

“If we give [drug users] space and look at them from health and human rights perspectives, and not just a State security perspective, it would be useful.

Gunilla Carlsson, Deputy Executive Director, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)

Key takeaways from the discussion

Panelists agreed on the fact that the ‘war on drugs’ initiated by Nixon and Reagan in the 70s has had counterproductive effects worldwide and turned into a war against the most vulnerable populations, with the demonization of drug users.

International and national laws have focused on criminalization and repression, which has only led to overcrowding prisons. “One out of five prisoners in the world is in jail for a drug-related issue,” Ms. Carlsson told the audience. Mayor Myrick stated that “the proponents of the war on drugs should have to defend and explain why in the US we spend trillions of dollars locking up more people than any other countries in the world and the overdose rate is only going up.” Ms. Dreifuss specified that “there must be repression, but you should know who to punish: organized crime offenders and certainly not poor people who resort to drugs out of poverty and despair.”

Punishing only without an all-encompassing policy including health and human rights aspects can only make things worse and marginalize affected communities even more.

Ms. Carlsson underlined the fact that HIV has decreased worldwide but has increased for the population misusing drugs. Vulnerability is even higher for young people and women. HIV infection is more likely to increase for people who are cast aside. She adds that “if we give them space and look at them from health and human rights perspectives, and not just a State security perspective, it would be useful.” Speakers pointed that even open societies can have a closed mind when it comes to drugs, which can create more obstacles for a drug user to have access to preventive and rehabilitation care. Strictly repressive policies do not work but are unfortunately not questioned or challenged enough.

The fear of drugs is such that in some cases, the measures to control useful drugs are too strict and prevent suffering people from having access to a substance that could relieve their pain, as it happens with morphine in a number of Southern countries.

This highlights the complexity of drugs insofar as they are linked to multiple social injustices (based on poverty, race, gender). These social stigmas are deeply rooted in the legislation and cultural prejudice. Speakers all said that it is important to give opportunities for marginalized people to speak out and change the narratives associated with drugs misuse, which is what UNAIDS is trying to do in some of its initiatives. “A society must reevaluate its stereotypes and change them so as to be more appropriate and efficient for public policies,” Mr. Soros advised.

As Ms. Dreifuss recalled, “criminal organizations respect at least one law: the law of offer and demand.” Reducing the opportunities for such criminals to make money and reducing the illegal demand by having legal drug channels will put them out of business, suggested Mr. Soros. As drugs will never be fully eliminated, at least, they should not serve the interests of the wrong people. This is why Ms. Dreifuss invited states to “take back control and regulate drug markets in a responsible way.”

The concept of harm reduction was thus central in this debate: panelists argued that if we can’t stop people from doing something dangerous, how do we make it less harmful to themselves and people around them? Instead of delusionally trying to obviate this problem, governments should create safe places and better conditions for drug users without shaming them. When implemented, such initiatives have demonstrated a statistical reduction of deaths, a drop in overdoses, and less transmission of AIDS.

Minister Delgado underlined the link between drug traffic and other types of human traffics. The drug issue should therefore not be isolated, and Ms. Dreifuss recommended that the efforts to fight these different illegal activities should be collaborative and tackle related scourges such as corruption or money laundering. A better coordination is needed to stop those who thrive illegally on destitution and weak structures.

All speakers recommended a holistic approach to drug issues. Minister Delgado mentioned the recently launched Mexican transformative drug policies including human rights, gender, social justice, territorial planning aspects to improve the development of communities. She stressed that the local socio-economic problems must be considered, and the conversation must include communities involved in the drug market as a way to survive and take into account cultural factors to understand and heal the social fabric of such groups. A special emphasis must be placed on education for families and young people. Finally, to fight drug traffic, she insisted on the need to have coordinated and regional efforts with all neighboring countries where drug is either produced, transiting or used.

This new joint approach needs to associate drug users, police, health professionals, families and all stakeholders in the fields of prevention, human rights, health and public safety. Research should also be intensified to develop healthier alternatives to addictive substances such as painkillers. Most importantly, authorities must restore trust with people who have been discriminated against and criminalized for years and treat them in a more humane way. Ms. Dreifuss shared her hopes for a world in which politicians would be responsible for a society’s well-being through awareness and education actions, but would not interfere in people’s private lives, but provide them with the tools to make personal informed decisions. Mr. Soros added though that “there’s no panacea to this, we must take into account each country’s specificity.”

The role of cities was underlined. As the Mayor of Ithaca simply put it “at a local level, citizens just want to see results and don’t care about the political fights taking place at a national level.” The Mayor explained how the plan he implemented including safe injections decreased the number of deaths from overdose by 25%. Having a family history of drug addiction and experienced the devastating social and economic consequences that came with it helped him understand firsthand what the problems and possible solutions were. He faced a lot of obstacles at first as his plan was seen as controversial. “In politics it’s always the changemakers, the reformers who are called upon to explain why their reforms will be effective,” he said. This was also a bold move, knowing that measures don’t always show results immediately and can jeopardize a reelection, but in the end, his decision paid off and the results spoke for themselves. Ms. Carlsson concurred and said that in Sweden, the government wasn’t so progressive on drug-related issues and that changes came from the mayors and municipalities who shifted the focus from criminalization to health.

Mr. Soros also raised the issue of environment degradation due to deforestation and narcotic crops. There is a nexus of bad drug policies and harmful effects on the environment that has to be addressed, he said.

On a more global perspective, Minister Delgado reminded that in all 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 agenda, there is a dimension to address drug and violence, and that this is a good timeframe to achieve peace and responsibility.


Discover the article by Ruth Dreifuss on the Medium blog of the Paris Peace Forum.

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