Drugs & Democracy


Side event on Cannabis co-organised by TNI during the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in April 2016

TNI believes that current prohibitionist drug policies are ineffective, counter-productive and undermine human rights. Over more than 20 years, TNI has become a leading global institute on drug policy reform – unique for our technical and policy expertise and for our pioneering proposals related to farmer participation, harm reduction on the supply side and regulation of markets for cannabis and mild stimulants.

Goal (2016-2020): To show that the ‘Vienna consensus’ is broken, to highlight the breakthroughs in alternative policy directions, to contribute to significant drug policy shifts in selected countries and to build support for future changes in the UN treaty system and institutional drug control architecture.

Project goals Results to which TNI contributed in 2016
Ensure 2016 UNGASS recognizes the reality of a broken consensus and accepts the possibility of future changes in the UN treaty system and its institutional architecture. Important steps taken:

  • Broad group of countries issued a joint declaration at UNGASS on death penalty, expressing dissent about the outcome document.
  • Growing bloc of countries questioned the international drug control system.
  • Discourse shifted towards a more human rights, health and development-based approach.
Ensure active engagement of other UN agencies and meaningful participation of civil society in UNGASS.
  • With TNI’s strong encouragement, other relevant UN agencies. e.g. UNDP and OHCHR, actively contributed to UNGASS preparation.
  • Broad civil society participation was ensured in preparatory process, with notable impact on the outcomes of the negotiations.
Organize forums with opium, coca and cannabis farmers in order to facilitate participation in policy debates and UNGASS.
  • Local opium farmers’ forums organized in Myanmar, contributed to a farmers’ forum in Colombia, and organized one Global Forum.
  • Advocacy on importance of farmers’ participation in drug policy discussions accepted at both official level and within the policy reform community.
  • Farmers’ representatives were included in the Civil Society Task Force, at ICAD2 and in the UNGASS itself.
  • UNODC and CND documents included language on the need to address poverty rather than criminalizing farmers’ communities.
Continue the cross-fertilization of experiences and best practices in drug law reform and cannabis regulation.
  • Series of briefings on cannabis policies were published (Indonesia, Paraguay, Latin America).
  • Input and advice was given to Canadian and Jamaican governments and Dutch parliamentarians on regulation of cannabis markets.
  • Examples of best practices were fed into drug law reform discussions and proposals in Myanmar and Thailand.
Explore different options for revision of the UN drug control treaty system.
  • Viable scenarios were elaborated for countries to legally reconcile cannabis regulation with international treaty obligations.
  • Briefing paper was published with partners on treaty reform options.
  • Side events were organized on treaty reform options during UNGASS in New York and CND in Vienna.
Continue informal dialogues to facilitate strategic policy debates and creation of like-minded groups and consolidation of coordinated positions.
  • Policy dialogues were held in Cambodia, Dominican Republic, Myanmar, Colombia and Germany.
Move international debate about Alternative Development towards concept of harm reduction, applied to the drug supply-side.
  • Side event was held on outcomes of ICAD2 during CND in Vienna.
  • Active participation was taken in discussion on future of Alternative Development at COPOLAD meeting in Bogota, and special session at Cambodia dialogue.
  • UNGASS outcomes document placed Alternative Development within the broader SDG agenda and broadened concept to urban drug markets and violence reduction.

Project in numbers

  • 1,168 English subscribers, 1,127 Spanish to our specialist lists
  • 4,789 followers of the Drugs & Development programme twitter account @DrugLawReform
  • More than 3,700 people reached in person through workshops, talks, and events in 15 countries.
  • Broad audience reached through articles citing or mentioning our work and perspectives in The Myanmar Times, Vice Magazine, OpenDemocracy, The New York Times, The Guardian, and El Espectador.
  • 12 policy briefings and reports published

Why this issue matters

For much of the last century, international drug policy has been based on a moralistic, prohibitionist and irrational approach that has had disastrous consequences for millions of people. Peasants have faced dispossession of their land, violence and chemical contamination, while drug users have been criminalized and pushed into more dangerous forms of drug use, and small traders have been subjected to disproportionate sentences leading to an explosion of incarceration and overcrowded prisons around the world. Meanwhile the expanding illicit drug markets have fueled corruption, criminal networks and deadly cycles of violence. TNI believes we need a new approach rooted in principles of human rights and harm reduction, based on evidence of what works, and one that protects and upholds the dignity of farmers and users.

Amplifying farmers’ voices at the UN

Producers of prohibited plants have traditionally been excluded from debates on drug policies, even though many are from impoverished communities who reap little monetary benefit and suffer directly from the violence involved in the drug war. TNI has long argued that any solutions to drug impacts must involve hearing from those who cultivate prohibited plants. So in January, TNI held an historic meeting that gathered producers of prohibited plants from 14 countries to discuss their experiences and prepare their demands for the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drugs Problem later in the year. The participants shared their personal experiences of the health, environmental and social impacts of drug policies, such as the fumigation of plants that have poisoned their lands and rivers, the militarized policing that has led to human rights violations and deaths, or forced eradication that deprived communities of their basic livelihoods. Based on the discussions, the forum issued a declaration directed at their governments and UNGASS. The meeting was reported on widely in the Dutch media.

Farmers representatives were subsequently involved in preparatory stakeholder meetings and at UNGASS itself. TNI’s Pien Metaal was elected as a member of the UN Civil Society Task Force (CSTF) to advocate for farmers' rights in the whole UNGASS process.

Thanks to TNI’s work, there has been a noticeable shift towards acceptance at both the official level and within the policy reform community of the need for participation of farmers’ communities in debates on drug policy. The Civil Society Task Force, International Conference on Alternative Development and the UNGASS itself have supported inclusion of farmers’ representatives. The UN agencies' documents and discourse have also included language on the need to address poverty rather than criminalizing farmers’ communities in an explicit manner.

“We are telling our government, stop investing in the war on drugs, invest in us. We have proposals and solutions.”

Wilder Mora Costa, Colombia

Building a country alliance in favour of drug policy reform

In 2016, a special session of the UN General Assembly (UNGASS) on drugs policy was convened, marking an important milestone in UN drug control history. TNI has been intensively involved in the preparatory process, with the hopes it could lead to a broad international recognition that the 'Vienna consensus' was broken and that systemic changes in the international drug policy architecture were needed.

Unfortunately, despite the glaring failures of the drug war, an admission that consensus had broken down ended up being blocked in the final outcome document along with any explicit language in support of harm reduction, decriminalization and ending the death penalty. Nevertheless, some victories were won in 2016 and important steps made towards the inevitable eventual break with the current UN drug control framework. A significant development was the emergence of a bloc of countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica, Ghana, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal and Norway, committed to move away from the punitive paradigm.

Another important sign of progress was the greater involvement of other UN institutions in the process, such as the UNDP, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, UN Women and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This enabled advances on issues of drugs and development, human rights, gender, proportionate sentencing, access to controlled medicines and alternatives to punishment. It has the potential to shift the debate further towards a more coherent UN approach to drugs consistent with human rights principles and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Meanwhile, TNI continues to build support for drug reform efforts in many individual countries that break with the international consensus. Through our policy dialogues that bring civil society, academia and policy-makers together, as well as our deeply researched reports and media outreach, TNI has helped sustain momentum. In 2016, TNI, in collaboration with reform-oriented governments and key partners like WOLA, IDPC and GIZ, organized policy dialogues in Cambodia (January), Santo Domingo (October), Myanmar (November) and Colombia (December) and the Brandenburg Forum in Germany(July).

TNI also produced research reports pushing for cannabis policy reform in Latin America, Asia and Europe. TNI has been advising several governments on how to deal with legal tensions with respect to their treaty obligations triggered by policy changes towards legal regulation of the cannabis market. In the Netherlands, TNI was asked to participate in an inter-ministerial brainstorm session for the Dutch EU Presidency in the first half of 2016.

“In 2007, I had the honour and pleasure, as General Secretary of the JND (National Drugs Board) of Uruguay, to organize together with TNI and WOLA the first Informal Dialogue on Drug Policies in Latin America. The results we have today in Uruguay in the field of drugs and human rights can be traced back to then… The ongoing support you have provided… also allowed us to join forces with colleagues and friends throughout Latin America.”

Milton Romani Gerner, former Permanent Representative of Uruguay at the Organization of American States

Advancing drug law reform in Myanmar

Throughout 2016, TNI has also worked closely with the new Myanmar government as it considers new approaches on drug policy. TNI helped support the establishment of the Myanmar Opium Farmers' Forum in order to ensure that farmers’ voices were heard in the national debates. In May, 34 opium farmers came together to issue a declaration calling for an end to forced eradication and for recognition of traditional uses of opium and customary land tenure rights.

TNI has also supported the emergence of a national Drug Policy Advocacy Group (DPAG) that is seeking to ensure drug issues are included in peace negotiations and national dialogues with ethnic groups. DPAG meets monthly and actively engages in discussions with parliamentary and government officials about drug policy reform options.

In the second half of the year, TNI working with the National Drug Users Network Myanmar (NDNM), published a policy briefing, Found in the dark, on the impact of drug law enforcement in Myanmar. The report was a key input in a regional informal drug policy dialogue that TNI co-hosted in November in Myanmar.

“For drug policy issues, TNI really is the best source. TNI is the only institution that has been working on this issue for such a long time and it has contributed a lot to this drug-related work in Myanmar.”

Ye Ni, Editor at Irrawaddy (independent news agency in Myanmar)


Martin Jelsma
Programme Director

Ernestien Jensema
Team Coordinator

Pien Metaal
Senior Project Officer

Tom Blickman
Senior Project Officer

Tom Kramer
Senior Research Associate, Myanmar

David Bewley-Taylor
Associate, UK

Ricardo Vargas
Associate, Colombia


Dania Putri (Indonesia)

Devika Sud (India)

Major publications

Partners and networks


  • Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP)
  • International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC)
  • Open Society Foundations (OSF)
  • Global Partnership on Drug Policies and Development (GPDPD)
    Global Forum of Producers of Prohibited Plants (GFPPP)


  • Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho, CEDD) Latin America
  • Intercambios Asociación Civil, Argentina
  • DeJusticia, Colombia
  • Observatorio de Cultivos Declarados Ilicitos (OCDI), INDEPAZ, Colombia
  • Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica (CIDE) Mexico
  • Colectivo por una política integral hacia las drogas (CUPIDH), Mexico
  • México Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD), Mexico
  • Centre for Research on Drugs and Human Rights (CIDDH), Peru
  • Asociación Costarricense para el Estudio e Intervención en Drogas (ACEID), Costa Rica
  • Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), US


  • National Drug Users Network Myanmar (NDNM)
  • Myanmar Opium Farmers Forum (MOFF)
  • Drug Policy Advocacy Group (DPAG)
  • Lawyers Collective, India
  • Paung Ku, Myanmar
  • Metta Development Foundation, Myanmar
  • iDefend, Philippines


  • Forum Droghe – Fuoriluogo, Italy
  • University of Utrecht (Criminology), Netherlands
  • Transform Drug Policy Foundation, UK
  • Release, UK
  • Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO), Swansea University, UK
  • International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, UK
  • Diogenis Association, Greece
  • Energy Control, Spain
  • International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Services (ICEERS), Spain
  • Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Germany
  • Grupo de estudio de políticas sobre el cannabis (GEPCA) (Task Force on Cannabis Policies), Spain


  • Confédération des Associations de Sanhaja du Rif pour le développement, Morocco