Pathways to opposing centralised and exclusionary drugs policy in Colombia

By Diana Machuca, Camilo Acero, Bryan Triana, Francisco Gutiérrez and Celia Dávila

Colombia is in its fourth week of a National Strike, in protest against a proposed tax reform. The reform was subsequently dropped but protests continue with widespread reports of police violence and abuse. The strike committee has proposed a long list of demands. Among these is the full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement by the government – including its illicit crop substitution programme – and the halting of a return to aerial spraying of glyphosate to kill coca crops. Meanwhile, the Colombian government has tried to shift focus to violence against the police and property, and the alleged infiltration in the protests by criminal armed groups involved in the drug trade.

The links between drug trafficking, the war on drugs, and the political system in Colombia are thick and complex. A new working paper outlines the regulations, narratives and actors that have designed and implemented drugs policy in Colombia. Here we summarise six defining characteristics of the evolution of Colombia’s drugs policy, and conclude with two possible entry points for using research to counter the increasingly hard-line tendencies of current policy.

1. The war on drugs in Colombia has been closely linked to the counter-insurgency war.

This is perhaps most clearly epitomised by Plan Colombia, the US-funded initiative which focused on strengthening the military capacity of public forces and on aligning the purposes of the counter-insurgency war with those of the counter-narcotics struggle.

2. The Colombian political system is largely democratic and competitive, but anti-drug policymaking is not.

Colombian drug policies have been centralised and opaque. The war on drugs generated two long-standing contrasts within the political system. On one hand, drugs policies have taken a very punitive approach that criminalises coca growers and excludes them from taking part in any decision-making. On the other hand, people higher up in the narco-trafficking value chain have been able to permeate the very same political system that remains closed to coca-growers. In addition, all anti-drugs policy decisions are centralised, while the rural regions that are most affected by illicit drugs and drugs policies have no say.

3. The US government has played a major role in establishing drugs policy standards and rationales.

The undemocratic and centralised nature of drug policymaking in Colombia has been exacerbated by the US influence, which has consistently pushed for forced eradication. The US government has also played a role in orienting agencies, such as the Colombian police, in implementing anti-drugs policy.

4. The 1991 Constitution is rights-based, which means that the judicial system has the duty to uphold citizen rights.

Thus, the Constitution opened the door to judicial decisions in defence of ethnic and peasant populations’ rights that have placed some limits on hard-line policies. For example, the Constitutional Court affirmed that indigenous and Afro communities must be consulted if the government is going to fumigate their territories.

5. The 2016 Peace Accord between the FARC-EP and the Santos government introduced important changes to drug policy.

The tensions outlined above led to the inclusion of point four of the 2016 Peace Accord, which advocates for a development-oriented and participatory approach to drug control, and for voluntary coca eradication through a crop substitution programme. Nonetheless, the Peace Accord also maintained elements of the historic, war-like approach to counter-narcotics, allowing the state to reintroduce arial fumigations as a last resort if voluntary substitution is not possible or does not work.

6. The implementation of the new aspects of drug policy included in the Peace Accord has encountered many obstacles.

The President and coalition elected in 2018 has failed to implement the illicit crop substitution programme (PNIS). The failure of PNIS is well documented, by, among others, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, with huge delays, poor communication with farmers and subsidies that never arrived. The current government is on the brink of re-activating aerial fumigations.

As noted above, two processes that have allowed for changes to the closed decision-making around drug policy (that is isolated from the preferences and needs of Colombian citizens) are the 1991 constitution and the 2016 peace agreement.

In terms of political incidence, legal strategies have been fundamental – in particular the judicial activism undertaken by different human rights organisations to denounce the abuses of forced eradication. As part of the Drugs & (dis)order project, the National University research team in Bogota has been applying a series of legal actions in order to protect the rights of the users of the PNIS; this is being undertaken with peasant, afro and indigenous organisations such as COCCAM. Similarly, we have participated in some actions that currently seek to stop manual forced eradication.

Thus, we propose that reinforcing judicial strategies and continued documentation of and advocacy for the implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord constitute two open windows for research-based engagement in opposition to the centralised and exclusionary nature of public policy on drugs.

This blog has been adapted from the working paper An analysis of Colombia’s drug policy and actors, with input and editorial support from Frances Thomson, Karen Brock and Louise Ball.

An analysis of Colombia’s drug policy and actors

By Diana Machuca, Camilo Acero, Bryan Triana, Francisco Gutiérrez and Celia Dávila

This working paper is an analysis of anti-drug policies in Colombia, considering its regulatory framework, the participation of different actors, and the different policies and strategies that have been used to address the phenomenon of illicit crops. It maps the international and Colombian policies for the War on Drugs and drug control, and identifies the main actors who influence and intervene in this regulatory framework.

Understanding the drugs policy landscape in Myanmar

In Myanmar’s conflict-affected borderlands, there is one constant that links almost all stakeholders in some way – illicit drugs and the economies derived from them. This working paper, researched and written before the military coup of 1st February 2021, explores Myanmar’s drugs policy landscape through an analysis of the stakeholders engaged in: national and legal policy frameworks around the production, trafficking and use of drugs; drugs and health; drugs, rural livelihoods and alternative development; and drugs and peacebuilding.

Five considerations for international actors trying to engage with drugs policy in Myanmar

By Nicholas Thomson and Patrick Meehan

In Myanmar’s conflict-affected borderlands, there is one constant that links almost all stakeholders in some way: illicit drugs and the revenues derived from them.

When it comes to narratives around drugs in Myanmar, however, there is often a tension between the ‘theatre’ of drugs interventions, and the lived experiences of people caught up with or connected to drugs issues.

A new working paper, written before the military coup of February 2021, explores these narratives in depth by analysing the stakeholders engaged in: national and legal policy frameworks around the production, trafficking and use of drugs; drugs and health; drugs, rural livelihoods and alternative development; and drugs and peacebuilding.

Here we present five considerations that emerge from this stakeholder analysis for international actors trying to engage with drugs issues in Myanmar.

1. There are significant tensions between drug production and drug use.

Drug production is central to the livelihoods of the rural poor in Myanmar’s borderlands. For some, drug cultivation is driven by long-standing marginalisation. For others, it is driven by new forms of livelihood insecurity and precarity that have emerged as a result of borderland development schemes.

At the same time, drug use is driving new forms of risk, vulnerability, public health crises and social conflict, creating a complex set of challenges.

2. Domestic drugs policy and practice is rife with disconnects and contradictions.

The drug economy has a long history in Myanmar’s borderlands and is deeply embedded in rural power structures. All conflict parties are in some way involved. Drugs have been rooted in efforts to finance armed conflict and counter-insurgency, as well as to shore up informal political arrangements aimed at stabilising conflict.

The deep integration of drugs in borderland economies makes it very difficult to disentangle legal and illegal economies at both sub-national and national level.

Drugs have been central to flourishing cross-border economies and are also important sources of investment in the national economy. Drug commodities involve the same actors and move though the same trade networks as legal commodities. As a result, illegal drug revenues have also become an important source of capital in the formal economy.

Against this background, a wide range of stakeholders – international, national and sub-national – engage with drug issues, giving rise to a complex set of narratives that are often at odds with each other.

3. Drugs are a low political priority for government in the borderlands, but not for local populations, who view drugs as a major issue.

Tackling drugs in the country’s borderlands has been a lower concern for the Myanmar military – the de facto authority throughout the country’s contested borderlands – than state-building, counter-insurgency, resource extraction and trade.

Drugs have often been integrated into these wider agendas. For example, through tolerance of illegal revenue flows into both the national economy and under-funded local administrations, and to the off-budget revenue of army-backed militias.

At a sub-national level, there are major concerns about the rise of harmful drug use, which for several decades have been a major driver of the country’s HIV epidemic.

There is also strong resentment towards the impunity afforded to politically connected major players in the drug trade, while policing on drug issues tends to target small-scale users and sellers – leading to people serving long prison sentences for minor offences.

Drug narratives are also suffused with wider grievance narratives around the neglect and exploitation of non-Bamar ethnic nationality populations, to the point that worsening levels of drug harms among these populations are viewed in some popular narratives as an intentional military strategy.

A case in point is the spread of drug use under the 17-year ceasefire in Kachin State, where such popular narratives are embedded in the rise of local anti-drug activities, especially the Church-based Pat Jasan movement. This significant development in the drug landscape in Myanmar has been highly controversial – critical as it is of both national and international responses to drug issues.

4. The most influential actors shaping the drug economy are the hardest for international actors to interact with and influence.

At the national level, Myanmar military elites – concerned with preserving national sovereignty – have long been determined to resist external engagement on issues that they see as domestic.

Other stakeholders – such as Western governments and international NGOs – are much easier to engage, but they themselves are grappling with the challenges of how to have an influence on drug issues.

Aid and diplomacy are also relatively weak levers for external influence. Aid dependency is low and the government has rigidly resisted external involvement in the country’s peace process.

These factors have limited the policy space for external engagement on sensitive domestic issues like drugs. Government narratives about external actors wishing to engage with the country’s drug challenges have often focused on curbing demand for drugs and the supply of precursor chemicals.

5. Fragmented political authority shapes the possibilities for health-based approaches to drugs.

International focus on drug issues in Myanmar has shifted in recent decades as a result of the fact that few of Myanmar’s drugs now reach US and western markets, with the majority going east to China, Southeast Asia and Australasia. China is now the dominant actor in terms of international pressures on drugs production, trafficking and conflict.

However, there has been increased engagement by multilateral agencies and international non-governmental organisations in response to the health implications of drug use in Myanmar. For example, multilaterals fund national harm reduction programmes, which are predominantly implemented by international NGOs.

There was also space for external engagement in the process of the national government revising its drugs legislation, resulting in an amended National Narcotics Law and a National Drugs Policy in 2018. Although international influence shaped an intent to foreground individual and public health as central pillars of a new approach to drugs, the new law fell short of abolishing harsh penalties for drug possession, which in turn rendered much of the language in the new drug policy rhetorical in implementation.

Final reflections

There is a huge local need for more education on the issues surrounding drugs issues, to address stigma and drug-related harms, and inform more inclusive and effective responses.

At the same time, for locally supported solutions to emerge, there is a need for external programmes to engage more deeply with local narratives, attitudes and beliefs around drugs.

Despite hopes that the peace process would open up space to address drugs, there was an absence of discussions around narcotics in the negotiations. Particularly against the backdrop of the February 2021 coup, space to include drugs in a negotiated peace may now be closed.

This blog has been adapted from the executive summary of the working paper Understanding the drugs policy landscape in Myanmar. The executive summary was drafted by Karen Brock and the blog was edited by Louise Ball.

What the book ‘Mushrooms at the end of the world’ can teach us about investigating life and policymaking in drug-affected borderlands

The book Mushrooms at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins captured my attention because of the way the subtitle hints at possibilities for positive change amidst deterioration and breakdown. And indeed, mushrooms do have an uncanny ability to grow in decaying places. So, how does the author, anthropologist Anna Tsing, deploy mushrooms as a metaphor for how life may regrow in capitalist ruins?

I imagine ‘capitalist ruins’ to be rustbelts and urban ghettos, or dusty fields with broken tractors – previously prosperous landscapes with stable jobs or bountiful harvests that have now become breeding grounds for populism, right-wing militias, and criminal enterprise.

Given my own research, I also imagine the conflict-affected, typically state-abandoned, and economically-marginalised borderlands, where the illicit cultivation of opium and coca has become a principal means of survival.  

It quickly becomes evident that Tsing’s way of storytelling is different. She alerts readers to this, warning us that she is not ‘building a logical machine’ but rather an ‘open-ended assemblage that is made up of many different patches.’

These patches are sometimes interconnected, sometimes autonomous. But together they account for what’s alive in the world despite the mess capitalism made of it. She uses the qualifier ‘polyphonic’ to describe this assemblage – like a polyphony of music in which autonomous melodies intertwine.

The book is based on anthropological field work in Oregon (US), Japan, and Yunnan (China) from 2004 to 2011 tracking the origins and commerce of the matsutake mushroom – an expensive and prized delicacy in Japan.

Tsing examines why matsutake cannot be mass-produced, like sugar or bananas. It is, we learn, because matsutake emerge in relation to dynamic forest landscapes – it is never self-contained. For example, Tsing describes abandoned industrial tree plantations in Oregon in which the abandonment created conditions for the emergence of invasive pine forests aided by the mushrooms that grow in its root systems breaking down poor soil and even rocks into nutrients that sustain the tree.

The ruins of the tree plantations are now a rich source of matsutake pickings. Attempts to grow matsutake as a mass commodity may have failed because people focused only on the mushrooms, and not on the landscapes and the people in it.

But Tsing points out that changing landscapes and the movement of people within it could not be predetermined with certainty either. Humans cannot control matsutake. It depends on more-than-human natural processes.

Related to this is what Tsing calls ‘disturbance’a change in environmental conditions that alters an ecosystem, often connected with damage. But disturbance, she says, is not always bad. It is both coordination and history, because human-disturbed landscapes are ideal spaces for examining what went on and what role nonhuman participants, like mushrooms, played. This is why, for example, the satayoma projects in Japan use ‘controlled disturbance’ to open up forests for mushroom growth, very much in contrast to the attempts to mass-produce matsutake like sugar or bananas.

Along the matsutake supply chain, we meet foragers and pickers in Oregon’s forests, who are typically white war veterans and Southeast Asian refugees. For them, the mushrooms don’t represent wages like those earned by workers in a sugar plantation. Rather they are prizes won from a particular form of freedom of living in and off the wilderness.

Once purchased and packed by intermediaries, the mushrooms turn into inventory, a capitalist commodity. Transported to its consumers in Japan, it undergoes yet another translation into a gift or a social artefact with a power to make personal ties and establish or strengthen reputations, signalling serious commitment between giver and receiver. Hence, most distributors in Japan do not see their roles as capitalist retailers, but as matchmakers between gift and the givers who buy it.

Tsing seeks to study capitalism without the assumption that the future has a single direction: progress. She examines wealth accumulation through histories in which both humans and nonhumans (tress, forests, mushrooms) are resources for investment. She implores us to accept the indeterminacy of outcomes – especially when attempting to fix the precarious livelihoods and precarious environments of the ruins. Precarity, she states, is when the controlled world we thought we had fails. Life in the ruins is life without the promise of stability.

As I read, I am once again reminded of my research. Life in the conflict and drug-affected borderlands is one of radical uncertainty – life without promise of stability as Tsing describes. And here we also see the ‘polyphonic’ assemblage – or entanglement – of licit and illicit economies, of conflict and development in the everyday lives and communities of the borderland.

I think of the numerous failed attempts to introduce substitute crops for opium and coca. Could those failures be partly attributed to how attention was focused only on substitute and substituted crops, and not on the landscapes and polyphonic currents that sustain their emergence? Were certain patches in the assemblages involved – for instance ownership of land, agricultural credit, or protection from predatory local actors – overlooked?

Tsing introduces us to many new concepts that challenge our conventional ways of viewing the world. One of these is ‘pericapitalism’, used to describe the ruins as sites of salvage that are simultaneously outside and inside capitalism.

Pericapitalism involves ‘translation’: the mushroom transforms from a prize (won in freedom) to a commodity (alienated with no connection to the forest from which it emerged or the forager who plucked it) and into gifts (that may be of no value to others but hugely symbolic to those it connects).

Further questions emerge: should drug lords be better regarded as pericapitalists who are simultaneously licit and illicit entrepreneurs, predators to some but protector to others, sources of both order and disorder? Are illicit opium and coca products not only illegal commodities, but also social artefacts that establish relations between its poor growers displaced from the mainstream economy by the increasing concentration of wealth, and powerful pericapitalists who fill in roles in the absence of the state? Are illicit crops sometimes a counter-current to that concentration of wealth?  

For me, one of the most significant contributions of the book for policymakers and researchers struggling with uncertain policy decisions to tackle illicit drugs economies is Tsing’s notion of indeterminacy. For Tsing, indeterminacy is not the end of history, but rather a node in which many beginnings lie in wait.

Accepting indeterminacy does not mean ignoring or papering over unresolved issues. Rather, it is more about what Tsing calls ‘listening politically’. That is, enabling a practice of translation that does not attempt to resolve differences on autopilot, but rather that allows difference to disturb.

It is through this disturbance that traces of ‘not-yet-articulated common agendas’ may be detected. The key point here is that livelihoods and ways of life develop through both coordination and disturbance, and especially in the ruins.

In the drugs policy field, which sometimes feels like an ideological battleground, accepting and embracing disturbance in a coordinated way (like the ‘controlled disturbance’ of the satayoma projects in Japan) may allow us to ask tough questions, ask the right questions, to find some common ground (no matter how thin, spotty or unstable it is), and to aim for the best imperfect policy decisions we can.

There’s one final contribution from Tsing’s work that I’d like to share, that builds on listening politically: the art of noticing. As social scientists we tend to rely on the same trusted sources: archives, diaries, ethnographies, and various other research reports. The art of noticing that Tsing practices also examines the tracks and traces of mushroom spores, pine trees, and forests – because they too contribute to our landscapes and are part of the polyphony.

Most importantly, the art of noticing is not simply about combing through the mess of existing worlds. It is also about avoiding the search for scalable applicable-for-all principles, laws, or formulas. Scalability, she says, banishes meaningful diversity that might change things.

Tsing’s methodology, therefore, is to me the book’s most important contribution. It succeeds in provoking a rethinking about how to investigate and approach entangled ways of life as they arrange and rearrange in coordination and disturbance.

Is this the approach we need to investigate the entanglement of illicit drug economies in conflict-affected borderlands?

Taking a political slogan seriously – reflections on a Policy Lab

Most, if not all, decision makers profess to evidence-based policymaking. The UK government’s What Works Network emphasises that good public policy decisions are informed by the best available evidence. If evidence is not available, ‘decision makers should use high quality methods to find out what works’.

Sadly, however, evidence-based policymaking often seems to be the exception rather than the rule. A political slogan, observed only when convenient.

Take the field of drug policy, where I have spent many years working as a researcher and NGO policy adviser trying to make sense of drugs policies and the paths they take – I have observed that decisions are often made despite the evidence.

Recall June 1998: the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) endorsed a 10-year Action Plan for a ‘drugs-free world’ that led to intensified eradication of illicit crops, despite evidence published in a 1995 six-volume UN study that found illicit drug consumption problems were unlikely to be solved ‘by continuing or intensifying existing supply-suppression strategies.’ Moreover, the study famously warned about the unintended consequences of forceful supply-side suppression – a case of the cure becoming worse than the disease.

As predicted, the rush to a ‘drugs-free world’ not only triggered massive human rights abuses in the decade that followed, it also failed to reduce supply. By 2018, opium and coca yields were at the highest levels ever since monitoring started.

I am not saying that all policymakers deliberately ignore the evidence. In my years working in this field, I’ve met many policymakers who are well-intentioned and committed to following ‘what works’.

Nevertheless, evidence gets ignored or delegitimised for two reasons: first, as Paul Cairney writes in The Politics of Evidence-Based Policy Making, ‘there is just too much evidence out there for anyone to consider’. This leads to either policy impasse or partisan wrangling. Second, sometimes a politics emerges that enforces a dominant narrative or version of what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ evidence.

Responding to how evidence gets ignored or delegitimised

Recently, I was involved in the first cycle of an ongoing Policy Lab initiated by the Drugs & (dis)order research project, which is working to build a new evidence base on war-to-peace transitions in the drug-affected borderlands of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar.

On the one hand, the project has invested in developing its methodology, producing high-quality evidence on the political economy of drugs-affected borderlands. On the other hand, it recognises that when it comes to drugs policy it’s not just about the quality of evidence that determines what is accepted or not, it’s also about the politics of drugs policy processes.

A ‘laboratory’ invokes the notion of a space where experiments can be made or in which innovations can be tested. From what I’ve seen so far, the Policy Lab has three key features.

First, it involves sustained engagement over a series of meetings, held in two cycles over the course of a year (rather than the usual one-off workshops or webinars), and therefore requires more commitment from participants.

Second, the Policy Lab introduced the idea of a policy trilemma. The trilemma asserts that sustainable solutions to the ‘drug problem’ can only be found by considering the connections between the drugs, development and peacebuilding policy fields. This means moving beyond seeing them as separate and disconnected, but also recognising the tensions and trade-offs involved – all good things do not go together.

Third, and most importantly, it is a space for having honest conversations. New approaches were sounded out, doubts and criticisms constructively raised, and confidential issues or data analysed, without reputational or operational risks for those involved.

Another advantage I see to the Policy Lab approach is that it attempts to move beyond traditional research uptake work. As Hilhorst, Swartz, and Celeen write, research communication should not be seen as an activity done separately from the research itself, and nor should it begin only after research is completed. Communication is not simply about the translation of technical and complex research into a language, format, and context that non-experts can understand. Right at the beginning, fundamental questions need to be asked about who research is intended to reach, at what time, and with which purpose.

Making a difference by asking the right questions

Just as there are fundamental questions that need to be asked throughout the research process, the same is true of policymaking processes. To make a real difference, I believe that the Policy Lab should not simply be a forum in which policymakers and researchers can ask each other ‘what works?’ It should also examine for whom?’

The question what works?’is limited. Unless qualified, it inevitably leads to the ‘temptation of the technical’, or the belief that solutions come from timely doses of capital and technical prowess, while avoiding entanglement in internal politics.

Carothers and de Gramont (2013) write that such beliefs lead to a misunderstanding of the causes of the problem; solutions imposed from outside that lack domestic buy-in or ignore local capacity issues; blindness to how technocratic-rational reforms may threaten powerful domestic interests and thus go nowhere; or failure to anticipate unintended harmful consequences (see the 1998 UNGA push for a ‘drugs-free world’ example up top.)

Furthermore, asking ‘for whom?’ serves to reorient relationships between the sources of knowledge (i.e. researched communities); those transferring the knowledge (i.e. researchers); and the recipients of the transfers (i.e. policymakers). Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a Maori scholar credited for her work on decolonising research, pointed out that when indigenous people themselves become the researchers and not merely the researched, research questions begin to be framed differently, priorities are ranked differently, problems are defined differently, and people participate in the process on different terms.

Perhaps, then, it’s not just about giving policymakers the answers to their questions, but it’s also about helping them ask the right questions, through spaces like the Policy Lab.

Expanding safe spaces for collaboration despite fundamental disagreements

The biggest challenge for the Policy Lab in my view is whether it can create a sufficient level of trust and confidence among the participants such that doors are opened for meaningful collaboration.

Policymakers, though protected by their status and institutions to some extent, face political and public pressure of a different sort – the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t type that brings its own career, reputational or operational risks.  A ‘lab’ for having honest conversations therefore emerges as an indispensable sounding board.

The Policy Lab brought together a small group of researchers and senior policy stakeholders across the drugs, development, and peacebuilding fields. This enabled active participation and a focus on learning in a ‘safe space’, creating trust and confidence.

Trust between participants gives a sense of confidence to discuss failures and learn from them. The landscape of drugs policy is marked by decisions that have caused acute political embarrassment, including decisions that have had deadly outcomes. Safety and trust are essential for a careful process of assessment to distil valuable lessons from actual experience and find ways of doing things differently next time.

Developing trust among people with strong views and sometimes fundamental disagreements may still be managed in a way that leads to collaboration. The first step towards doing this has already been explained – asking the right questions.

A next step, drawing on the work of anthropologist Anna Tsing – seeks to ‘listen politically’ so as to allow differnce and create ‘disturbance’. This disturbance may in fact, Tsing argues, be ‘the node in which many beginnings lie in wait’. When differences are allowed, rather than papered over or ignored, traces of ‘not-yet-articulated common agendas’ may emerge.

In sum, the Policy Lab could be a practice that may: help break the policy impasse created by an overload of evidence. Enable analysis beyond the limits prescribed by dominant versions of what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Help policymakers to ask the right questions rather than being spoon-fed with ‘the best possible evidence’. Expand safe spaces for honest conversations and provide a useful, confidential sounding board. And open doors to collaboration despite fundamental disagreements.

Thus, in my view, the Policy Lab can help us to move beyond the political slogan and further debates on what constitutes good public policy decision-making in meaningful way.

It is impossible to pursue a drugs-free world, sustainable development and peace at the same time, says new research

Media Release 19 April 2021 | SOAS, University of London

A new Special Issue of the International Journal of Drugs Policy (IJDP), led by SOAS University of London, provides empirical research on the convergence of the drugs, development and peacebuilding policy fields, and calls into question a growing reformist agenda that advocates for the developmentalisation of drugs.

Trillions of dollars have been spent on the war on drugs, and the resulting developmental harms of these securitised approaches has been well documented.  Yet the tensions and trade-offs that surface when drugs policy and development goals converge, especially in conflict contexts, are insufficiently recognised in dominant academic and policy debates. The Special Issue provides empirical research on this convergence.

“The simultaneous pursuit of counter-narcotics policies, development and peacebuilding have distributional effects that need to be better understood – all good things do not come together” said Jonathan Goodhand, Professor of Conflict Studies at SOAS. “We hope this Special Issue will encourage an open, honest and evidence-based conversation about the drugs-development-peace nexus, recognising the pitfalls as well as the potentialities of this convergence.”

The IJDP special issue comprises 22 research articles, viewpoints and commentaries from the Drugs & (dis)order research project. It spans geographical regions across the global South – from Colombia, passing through Iran and Afghanistan, to Myanmar – focusing on perspectives from the drug- and conflict-affected borderland regions of each county.

“Borderland regions are often treated as breeding grounds for violence and instability, provoked by transnational illicit drug economies. This means borderland communities are likely to be the targets of harsh or highly securitised drug policies that have devastating impacts on their livelihoods.”  Patrick Meehan, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at SOAS.

“The contributions in this Special Issue reveal that, far from being passive receptors of external policies, borderland communities often generate new ideas, powerful practices and creative insights that policymakers would do well to listen to and learn from.” Added Orzala Nemat, Director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.

Based on longitudinal research from the borderlands of these drug-producing countries, the Editors urge policymakers to confront the deleterious effects of pursuing counter-narcotics, development and peacebuilding goals simultaneously.  They recommend policymakers pay greater attention to the tough trade-offs, their distributional effects, who decides on these goals, and who bears the costs of these decisions.

“This is about policies, but it’s also about politics,” said Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, Professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. “These are political choices that must be made, not technical decisions based on best practice.  It’s paramount that the perspectives of those living in drug- and conflict-affected environments are represented in making those political choices.”

Notes to the editor


About Drugs & (dis)order
‘Drugs & (dis)order: building sustainable peacetime economies in the aftermath of war’ is a four-year research project, funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund, generating new evidence on how to transform illicit drug economies into peace economies in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar. It is an international consortium of internationally recognised organisations. Led by SOAS University of London, project partners are: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), Alcis, Christian Aid, Kachinland Research Centre (KRC), London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), Organization for Sustainable Development and Research (OSDR), Oxford School of Global and Area Studies (OSGA), PositiveNegatives, Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), Universidad de los Andes, and Universidad Nacional de Colombia. | Twitter: @drugs_disorder 

About the International Journal of Drugs Policy (IJDP)
IJDP provides a forum for the dissemination of current research, reviews, debate, and critical analysis on drug use and drug policy in a global context. It seeks to publish material on the social, political, legal, and health contexts of psychoactive substance use, both licit and illicit. The journal is particularly concerned to explore the effects of drug policy and practice on drug-using behaviour and its health and social consequences. It is the policy of the journal to represent a wide range of material on drug-related matters from around the world.  

Available online | |

International Journal of Drug Policy Special Issue: Drugs, conflict and development

This Special Issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy (IJDP) provides empirical research on the convergence of the drugs, development and peacebuilding policy fields, and calls into question a growing reformist agenda that advocates for the developmentalisation of drugs.

The articles span different geographical regions across the Global South, from Colombia to Myanmar, passing through Iran and Afghanistan, together with Viewpoints and Commentaries which examine the complex and context-specific entanglements between violence, drugs, development and peacebuilding.

Policymaking processes are studied as part of these complex entanglements, inseparable from the political economies of the borderland regions where drugs, development and peacebuilding, both as processes and interventions, converge.

The IJDP Special Issue is free to download for 60-days from publishing (until 15 June 2021).