Global health centre
14 October 2016

Think globally and act locally to promote drug policy reforms

“The most important reforms in drug policy have to happen locally”, says Ethan Nadelmann, Founder and Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, invited by the Global Health Centre and Groupement Romand d’Etudes des Addictions for a dialogue session on 13 October 2016 at the Maison de la paix in Geneva. He sees the relationship between the local and global levels of drug policy as an opportunity to promote change.

Dr Nadelmann highlighted that the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, which took place in April 2016 built momentum, but did not result in significant progress to rebalance the current international drug policy control regime. One of the many reasons behind this slow movement is the opposition on the part of many governments that still support the war on drugs. Moreover, the willingness of the European Union to find a consensus on a common position undermined strong leadership for reform on the part of some European countries.

At the same time, innovative initiatives in relation to harm reduction, criminal justice reform, and drugs regulation are being explored and implemented at the local level. The question is, therefore, to know how best to use resources: whether the effort of promoting the revision of the Conventions underpinning the current regime at the global level is worthwhile, or whether to focus resources locally, where reforms are possible. According to Dr Nadelmann, one solution to this dilemma is to adopt a flexible interpretation of current treaties, meaning that different approaches to address the drug problem are tolerated. This would open windows of opportunity for new solutions at the local level, and the Conventions would gradually lose their significance and force.

The federalism, that characterises both Switzerland and the United States, among others, is one of the features that can promote innovation in public policy. In particular, it allows for the introduction of new approaches within federal states, even if support at the federal level is absent. In this way, best practices and effective solutions can be identified and scaled-up.

However, coherence and multistakeholder cooperation constitute major challenges in this bottom-up movement, as promoters of reforms include organisations and people of different backgrounds and interests. Moreover, the human rights dimension of drug policy reform is not always fully recognised: arguments framed in economic or public safety terms are more likely to work, testifying to the need for transforming the understanding of drug users and for raising awareness on the health and human rights consequences of the war on drugs.

International Geneva is a privileged place to link local discussions to international players. Although Geneva is well-known for its global institutions and as a centre of multilateral diplomacy, its many local actors and their work are often neglected. Synergies need to be built among entities working at different levels to ensure that ideas and effective solutions emerging locally feed into global processes and contribute to a more coherent, multisectoral approach to drug policy reform.


Further information

A conversation with Ethan Nadelmann, Drug Policy Alliance