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Data is power – and it can help us end the ‘war on drugs’



For decades, tracking how well – or badly – governments are doing in drug policy has been an elusive endeavour. In no small part, this is because data collection efforts by both governments and the UN have been driven by the outdated and harmful goal of achieving a ‘drug-free society.’

The success of drug policies has not been measured against health, development, and human rights outcomes, but instead has tended to prioritise indicators such as the numbers of people arrested or imprisoned for drug offences, the amount of drugs seized, and/or the number of hectares of drug crops eradicated.

Most governments continue to employ a repressive approach to drug control based on this skewed data, which in turns means they cannot be held accountable for the damage their policies inflict on the lives of so many people.

But data – and a global analysis of drug policies that ultimately scores and ranks countries – can change the status quo. Such a tool already exists for many other fields: we have a Global Hunger Index, a Global Health Security Index, a Global Peace Index, a World Press Freedom Index, a Democracy Index and many more.

And so, an interactive Global Drug Policy Index is an idea for which the time has come. At last, we have the beginnings of a tool that enables us to compare how countries’ drug policies are faring in achieving the UN objectives of protecting human rights, ensuring security for local communities, securing health, harm reduction and access to controlled medicines, and promoting development for people who grow drug-related crops.

This first edition acts as a proof of concept, covering 30 countries from all regions of the world – and shows that it is now possible to hold governments to account for the devastating impacts of their drug policies, based on solid, reliable and updated data.

The strength of the Index lies in the fact that it does not only look into policies on paper. It goes further than that, seeking to capture how drug policies are actually implemented on the ground – with data driven from civil society experts in all 30 countries, and stories from communities who have borne the brunt of punitive drug control all over the world.

If there is one key takeaway of the Index, it is this: no one country deserves to feel good about itself when it comes to drug policy, because no country has reached a perfect score. Or anywhere near it.

In fact, Norway, the country with the highest score in this year’s Index, only scored 74/100. The median score is just 48/100. The five top-ranking countries – Norway, New Zealand, Portugal, the UK and Australia – scored more than two times higher than the five lowest-ranking countries of Mexico, Kenya, Indonesia, Uganda and Brazil.

To be sure, there are some encouraging signs within the Index. Costa Rica, in ninth position, stands out as the only Latin American country surveyed this year that has made strides at aligning its drug policy with human rights, with its decriminalisation policy, a gender-sensitive approach to drug control, and basic access to harm reduction services. 

The Index also shows the efforts made by countries like Jamaica to ensure more proportionate responses within its criminal justice system, ranking first in this dimension. Similarly, Norway and New Zealand, my home country, are also highlighted as having ensured that those suffering from pain can access the opioid medication they need.

But overall, the Index paints a bleak picture of global drug policy. Why?

The answer is simple. Despite countries’ commitments to align drug policies better with human rights, health and development, the destructive power of punitive and stigmatising drug laws continues to impoverish communities growing plants for illegal drug production, prevent people who use drugs from accessing life-saving harm reduction services like sterile needles and syringes, methadone and drug checking, and drive countless acts of police brutality, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, torture, and killings.

Can we turn things around?

Of course, we can. This Index is a positive and welcome first step at making governments accountable, but also better informed about what is considered as good drug policy. It is there to initiate constructive discussions about what needs to change, emphasise the importance of evidence – and rights – based drug policies based on recommendations from the United Nations, and guide policy making priorities and reforms for the years to come.

Good, accurate data is power, and it can help us end the “war on drugs” sooner rather than later.

  • Helen Clark is the of Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy and the former Prime Minister of New Zealand.
    This is an edited version of Clark´s foreword to the inaugural Global Drug Policy Index, launched this week.

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