Expert Workshop on Supply-Oriented Harm Reduction

Washington DC, May 10, 2011

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) invited a group of 20 experts for a round-table discussion at the WOLA office in Washington DC . The main question on the table: can the concept of “harm reduction” be applied to supply-oriented challenges to better address the harms associated with illicit drug production and distribution, but also minimize the harms that stem from drug control itself?

Interventions and policies aiming to reduce the health, social and economic harms of drug use have become prominent in many countries in recent years.  By comparison, consideration of how a harm reduction approach might be applied to the supply-side of the drugs market is relatively new and still very much a pioneering exercise. While the idea has been explored past years for drug-linked cultivation as well as for law enforcement strategies directed at street-level dealing, this workshop was the first attempt to bring a critical group of people from academia, think-tanks and NGOs together for an in-depth exploration of the potential of its application across the drugs chain.

Starting point was the now widely accepted reality that supply reduction efforts have not been able to impact on the overall size of the market, merely shifting production and supply routes from one place to another, oftentimes aggravating related harms in the process. A sensible shift of policy goals therefore would be to prioritise interventions that reduce the harms associated with the existence of drug markets while avoiding those harms stemming from traditional supply reduction efforts themselves. Examples were discussed where levels of violence have been successfully reduced even while the amount of drugs distributed was not affected, like the North-Carolina High Point and the Boston Ceasefire strategies in the U.S. and the recent UPP pacification of favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

At cultivation level a connection was made with certain advances in the Alternative Development/Livelihoods debate, the ‘cato’ scheme in Bolivia allowing coca cultivation of a small plot per family for subsistence, and the now-defunct decree in Laos allowing elderly opium users to cultivate for personal use. The urgent challenge of designing a violence-reduction strategy for Mexico using harm reduction approaches was discussed as well, considering the disruptive consequences of targeting high-level traffickers.

The general conclusion of the workshop was that it has good potential for policy guidance to introduce harm reduction principles into supply-oriented strategies. Intelligently “managing” the market and steering it into a less violent and less harmful direction (including regarding the substances that are predominant on the market) seem to hold more promise for a better cost-benefit outcome of invested resources then simply continuing with the current supply reduction paradigm. A public briefing was held the next day on Capitol Hill to present and discuss these initial conclusions. Among the next steps in the process will be the release of a report of the meeting and a discussion paper on harm reduction for supply, and follow-up discussions in the context of the Latin American conference in Mexico in September and the Alternative Development workshops in Thailand end this year.