WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
12 Jul 2016 | Commentary

UNDP Report Highlights Promising Drug Policy Alternatives

By Paula Martínez Gutiérrez*

In April 2016, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released a groundbreaking report, which recognizes that current approaches to global drug policy have not been effective in reducing the market for illicit substances. The report, Reflections on Drug Policy and its Impact on Human Development: Innovative Approaches provides case studies of various alternative policies that can help countries design their own strategies based on local circumstances. The paper builds on the UNDP’s 2015 Human Development Report by presenting innovative alternatives to current policies and addressing drug policy with a view towards meeting the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Some of the issues and alternative policies that the UNDP highlights in its report include:


As the report notes, many small-scale farmers resort to growing illicit crops out of poverty and a lack of legal alternatives. For this reason, the UNDP urges policymakers to address the reasons why small-scale farmers cultivate prohibited plants. The paper presents successful initiatives, regarding poppy in Thailand and coca in Bolivia, as alternative options for reducing the cultivation of these plants through economic development.

The positive results in Thailand stem from a provision that issues economic support in exchange for voluntary crop reductions and from official recognition that opium plays a role in indigenous medical and ritual practices. However, the report also recognizes that there is room for improvement, particularly in terms of integrating the most vulnerable groups–such as landless farmers and women–into the programs.

In the case of Bolivia, in 2006 President Evo Morales formalized a community coca control program which allows farmers to grow small plots of coca for the legal market, while also providing economic assistance and infrastructure development in coca-growing regions. The program ensures subsistence income for farmers, reduces police and military violence, and benefits from close government monitoring. The European Union continues to cooperate with Bolivia through programs that include a biometric register of coca farmers, international monitoring of coca fields, and support for development projects. As a result, the UNODC reported that areas of coca cultivation in Bolivia declined by 34 percent between 2010 and 2014. This trend appears to have held throughout 2015, as WOLA has noted in an analysis of updated UNODC data.

Alternatives to Arrest and Incarceration for Low-Level Drug Offenses

Many governments are concerned about the disproportionate harm that drug criminalization has in their communities, particularly with regards to the incarceration of individuals for small quantities intended for personal use. Moreover, multiple analyses have shown that there is no clear link between incarceration and a reduction in personal drug use.

For these reasons, various countries, including Portugal and the Czech Republic, have decriminalized the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use. Uruguay and four US states have taken a further step by legalizing and regulating cannabis markets for recreational use. While outcome data remains limited from these recent policies, in Colorado there has been no increase in drug use among youth, while cannabis-related arrests and prosecutions have fallen dramatically.

Addressing Gender Dimensions of Drug Control Policy

Marginalized women often join the drug trade due to the ongoing discrimination that limits their opportunities for education and employment. Consequently, women are being incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses at an alarming rate and are facing severe sentences. For example, those employed as “drug mules” are often subject to the same penalties as large-scale traffickers. Many, if not most, are mothers and the primary caregivers for their children.

In order to protect these households, several countries have taken steps to reduce the sentencing of women living in conditions of vulnerability. For instance, in 2012 England and Wales introduced a new set of guidelines for drug offenses. These protocols seek to ensure proportionality between the offender’s level of involvement and the sentencing of the crime. Thus, these guidelines create a distinction between those who play a “leading” role in drug-related offenses and those who play a minor role. As a result, policy makers can have a better understanding of the circumstances that lead individuals towards committing drug-related offenses, in addition to offering better protection for women who are coerced into illicit activity.

While drug policy experts admit that there is still much to do in terms of addressing the disproportionate sentencing of non-violent drug offenses, they also point out that reducing sentences for women in vulnerable situations is an important step forward.

Overall, the UNDP report offers policymakers a set of innovative approaches for countries to consider as alternatives to their current drug policies. It also clearly outlines the harmful consequences of the current drug prohibition regime on marginalized sectors of society. The UNDP report thus encourages nations to adopt drug policy programs that take into account specific socioeconomic and political circumstances, and that simultaneously provide protections for vulnerable communities.

*Paula Martínez Gutiérrez is a Summer 2016 intern.