Rethinking drug policy to contribute to peace

To date, drug trafficking has been largely met with law enforcement and hard security responses, yielding limited if not counterproductive results.

Funded by the Global Drug Policy Program of the Open Society Foundations, International Alert conducted research in three critical contexts – Afghanistan, the border between Colombia and Peru, and Nigeria – to unpack the links between drug trafficking, conflict, violence and instability. The research seeks to clarify the impact drug production and trafficking has on the political economies of these nations, and to understand if peacebuilding could introduce new angles and ideas into the conversation.

All four countries share similar political, social, and economic grievances that are, to various degrees, associated with drug trafficking. Both in terms of what determines the reasons for entering production and becoming associated with the trade, and the impacts this wields on individuals, governance and security.

An important distinction can be drawn between producing and transiting countries in terms of the economic opportunities that the drug trade offers. In producing countries (Afghanistan and Colombia/Peru), illicit crops provide a livelihood to many communities, which are part of a much larger chain of local ‘fixers’ and national and international traffickers – many of which are linked to criminal or illegal armed groups. Conversely, in countries like Nigeria, which is mostly a transit country (even though the production of methamphetamines is on the rise), the narcotics trade strengthens the economic position of already powerful individuals, reinforcing their influence over the state.

Yet, in all three contexts, the trade is not usually violent, unless the trade itself is in danger. Violence is not conducive to business and attracts attention, preventing things from running smoothly. In fact, communities even strike ‘deals’ with drug traffickers so that ‘peace’ is maintained and violence is waged elsewhere. This is not to say that drugs and violence are not connected. But their connection is more subtle and the drug trade provides the economic incentives required by certain groups, whether non-state armed groups or ‘gangs’, to exist and to exert control over portions of the state territory. This in turn affects government provision of security and increases the risk of violent conflict by preventing the establishment of the rule of law.

Moreover, corruption was found to be one of the main factors sustaining drug trafficking and allowing it to thrive. In all three countries, illicit profits continue to be instrumental in fostering corruption at local and national levels, permeating electoral systems, with distressing effects on government performance, transparency and accountability. This in turn can fuel social tensions and conflicts.

Finally, the three countries share a history of ineffective law enforcement measures that have failed to take action against the rich and influential individuals behind the trade – those who can afford to acquire protection. Consequently, those who cannot afford protection, the ‘small fishes’ such as small farmers, dealers and users, are disproportionately targeted. This has contributed to further marginalising already vulnerable groups, leaving the larger networks and businesses intact.

The findings of this research suggest the need for a shift towards community-based and locally-owned solutions as well as towards more holistic approaches that take into account the connections between poor government performance, corruption and drug trafficking. Solutions also require an understanding of the impact that existing policies have on those more vulnerable.

In this context, it is therefore essential that all actors, national and international, place this subject at the heart of political agendas, in order to maximise the potential that improved drug policy reforms could exert on the construction of lasting peace in all three countries, and potentially beyond.

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Photo: Ton Koene/Alamy Stock Photo