Global Drug Policy Index Shines Light on Harm Reduction, Human Rights

    Following the bouncing ball of international drug policies is an almost impossible task, as every variable imaginable can impact the process of documenting responses to shifts in drug dynamics, law enforcement and harm reduction efforts.

    In response to this, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), in conjunction with a large coalition of organizations, has announced the Global Drug Policy Index (GDPI)—a massive effort designed to effectively monitor and document international outcomes.

    “It has become clear to us that measuring the real impact of drug policies on society on a country-by-country basis has been poorly mapped out—and that’s about to change,” said Marie Noudier, the IDPC’s Head of Research and Communications.

    Noudier helmed a November 4 launch briefing covering the goals of the GDPI, the extent of its reach and how it came to be developed. She cited how the current model of documentation made on behalf of world governments and the UN is outdated, still operating based on a “drug-free” society model.

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

    In light of this, the IDPC and its allies studied societal measuring tools beyond abstinence in order to form a new framework. Their inspiration came from the Global Hunger Index, Global Peace Index and the World Press Freedom Index.

    The current top rankings are held by Norway, New Zealand and Portugal. Brazil, Uganda and Indonesia form the bottom three.

    The GDPI in its current state functions as a proof-of-concept, with a pool of 30 countries operating as a testbed. Policies from each country are studied and ranked in conjunction with the UN’s principles of human rights, health and development.

    “It’s composed of 75 indicators running across five growth dimensions of drug policy, Noudier explained. “First, the absence of extreme sentences and responses; secondly, the proportionality of criminal justice response; thirdly, health and harm reduction; fourthly, access to controlled medicines; and finally, development.”

    These five factors are showcased on the index with a numerical score applied to each. The aggregation of these scores determines where a country falls in an overall ranking. While only 30 countries have been surveyed so far, valuable data has emerged, and countries with high scores in certain areas can see their rankings heavily impacted by failings in others.

    The current top rankings are held by Norway, New Zealand and Portugal, which famously decriminalized all drugs back in 2001. Brazil, led by anti-harm reduction President Jair Bolsonaro, holds the bottom spot. Uganda and Indonesia complete the bottom three.


    How the Numbers Were Crunched

    To formulate this model, the IDPC reached out to experts in large-scale data collection. Matthew Wall, a member of the Global Drug Policy Observatory, and department head of Politics, Philosophy and International Relations at Swansea University in Wales, is one of the leading minds behind the GDPI’s data.

    “Creating a methodology for a project like this is largely an exercise in information compression,” Wall told Filter. “What I mean by that is that you have an extremely complicated policy area in several countries around the world and you need to compress that into a set of numbers.”

    To collect this data, the GDPI relied on available assets, such as the United Nations Documentation System; on individual policy data released by each country; and on civil society organizations present within each area of operation.

    Attainment of country-specific data was heavily aided by the United Nations Task Team Common Position on drugs—a UN report that holds evidence on rights-based policy surrounding drug use from across the globe.

    In the process of converting this mountain of data and documentation into the GDPI’s five factors, Wall contributed to the efficiency of the logistics behind the number crunch, and to making sure nothing got lost in the mix.

    “Ultimately, what the index evaluates is the extent to which these policy recommendations from the international system are implemented by these states,” he explained. “So, the 75 indicators we arrived at ended up being compressed into a series of policy clusters, from those clusters we narrowed it down to five dimensions.”

    “What that lets us do is uncover and differentiate the lazy narratives about what’s happening in those states, versus what is actually happening on the ground.”

    But even with all those resources, the GDPI team was faced with certain gaps in knowledge. To help make up for missing or unavailable information, Wall and his colleagues constructed a survey that was sent out to drug policy experts in the countries of study.

    “We received 371 responses to that survey,” he said, “and what you’re seeing on those indicators that were driven by the survey is the aggregate opinion of those expert correspondents. It was a real privilege to be able to process all of that on-the-ground and real-world information.”

    According to Wall, additional safety nets were set up throughout the data-collection process, with further surveys being conducted in tandem with policy experts and scientific advisory groups, all to ensure that each indicator on the index was analyzed to its fullest extent.

    Wall believes that the potential expansion of the GDPI beyond its current total of 30 countries will benefit the rigor of the project, as well as its scope.

    “I think pragmatically, the scale of the project becomes more complex as you increase the number of states,” he said. “So imagine we have served 371 people for these 30 states, we end up looking at 12 to 13 on-the-ground experts per state as a minimum standard. So each state does come with some additional resource implications. What that lets us do, however, is uncover and differentiate the lazy narratives about what’s happening in those states, versus what is actually happening on the ground.”


    Reactions From Activists in Impacted Countries

    Representatives from the countries involved have been more than interested observers in the GDPI process, with a handful of representatives taking the stand at the launch briefing. They expressed satisfaction and relief at the work the index is doing, while elaborating on where their home countries fall on the ranking.

    “As a Brazilian, I wouldn’t say I’m surprised that Brazil is the worst score on the index.”

    Julia Lemgruber, coordinator of the Centre for Studies on Public Security and Citizenship in Rio de Janeiro, spoke about her history with drug policy in Brazil and why she isn’t all that shocked by her country’s rating.

    “As a Brazilian, I wouldn’t say I’m surprised with the fact that Brazil is the worst score on the index,” she told the panel. “It’s not a surprise, but it makes me feel very comfortable because when I get to talk to media in Brazil, we can emphasize how violent the implementation of drug legislation in Brazil has become. When they translate these numbers from Brazil, they translate what I see every day.”

    The emergence of the GDPI is a crucial development, she added. “The criminal justice system does not produce enough data, not enough [so] that we have a clear notion of what’s going on.”

    Kenya Cuevas, a renowned trans rights advocate who experienced drug-related incarceration firsthand in Mexico, was able to provide insight into the harms of Mexican drug policy in practice.

    “Despite the fact that Mexico has some of the best policies in the world, they are not implemented,” she explained. “We have an important problem of criminalization and people being deprived of freedom. The sentences are really exemplary, are robbery or consumption of substances in my case. I was imprisoned because I consumed drugs and was then accused of selling.”

    In the 11 years that Cuevas was imprisoned, she witnessed the Mexican justice system’s approach to drug-related charges, together with how basic human rights and gender freedoms were violated at every turn. “If you have a prison sentence in Mexico for eight years or more, you don’t get [state-funded] legal representation,” she said.

    “These decriminalization models are a failure because they are not rooted in human rights … and not created by the people most affected by the drug war.”

    Representatives from countries that have higher rankings on the index, such as Canada— currently making international waves in its push for decriminalization—meanwhile shared insight into how even a good scorecard doesn’t mean a country’s system is without faults.

    “These decriminalization models are a failure because they are not rooted in human rights, ending the legal apparatuses that bring harm to people’s lives, racial justice and they were not created by the people most affected by the drug war,” said Zoe Dodd, co-organizer at the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society.

    Although the GDPI is in its infancy, the vast amount of data and conversation that it has already unearthed signals progress in laying the foundation for better knowledge, accountability—and, therefore, policy—worldwide.



    Flag-map of the world (2017) by Angelgreat via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    • Jake is a freelance reporter of all trades, including health, politics and investigative features. He specializes in finding the human element that makes a story tick. He lives in Canada.

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