Drugs & Democracy

Drying Cannabis plants in preparation for hashish production in Morocco.

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.

Overall Goal (2011-2015): To use the build-up to the UNGASS meetings to show that the ‘Vienna consensus’ is broken, to highlight the breakthroughs in alternative policy directions and build support for future changes in the UN treaty system and institutional drug control architecture.

Goal Results in 2015 to which TNI contributed
Ensure that the 2016 UNGASS recognises the reality of a broken consensus at the global level, the breakthroughs occurring at local, national and regional levels in terms of alternative policy directions, and accepts the possibility of future changes in the UN treaty system and its institutional architecture.
  • TNI publications on Cannabis and conventions that exposed reality of broken consensus viewed more than 5100 times
  • Emerging alliance of like-minded countries, with TNI support, advocates for treaty change (Uruguay, Jamaica, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Czech Republic)
  • Increasingly mainstream support for TNI position from Brookings Institution, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung , UN University and others
Ensure the active engagement of other UN agencies and meaningful participation of civil society in the preparatory process and the UNGASS itself.
  • TNI with others in the International Drug Policy Consortium successfully pressures for greatly increased participation in UNGASS by a wide variety of UN agencies leading to a broad range of perspectives heard in process
Organise forums with opium, coca and cannabis farmers in order to facilitate their meaningful participation in policy debates and in the UNGASS process.
  • Established Growers Forum with farmer networks in Jamaica, Albania, Bolivia, Colombia, Spain, Guatemala, Indonesia, Jamaica, Morocco, Mexico, Myanmar, Paraguay, Peru, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and South Africa, national meetings held in Colombia and Myanmar and prepared global meeting (held January 2016 in the Netherlands)
  • TNI’s Pien Metaal elected  in the Civil Society Task Force for UNGASS to facilitate the voice of farmers
  • Website and social media for presence Grower’s Forum established 
  • Farmers representatives were enabled to actively participate in UN drug policy meetings in Vienna and New York, as well as in the UNGASS itself (April 2016)
  • For the first time representatives of opium farmers were allowed to participate in a national drug policy conference in Myanmar
  • A strong farmers delegation was able to participate in the International Conference on Alternative Development (ICAD-2) in Thailand
Continue the cross-fertilisation of experiences and best practices in drug law reform and cannabis regulation via our expert seminars, dialogues and publications.
  • Held 3 international policy dialogues in Puerto Rico, Colombia and Uruguay to discuss reform options with government representatives of more than 20 countries
  • TNI staff spoke at 30 seminars and policy meetings in the UK, Netherlands, Colombia, Myanmar, Ecuador, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, US, China, Mexico, Italy, Hungary
  • Legislative changes in Jamaica, Chile, Belize, Costa Rica, and Ecuador in a less punitive direction
Move the debate about a revision of the UN drug control treaty system to a more sophisticated level, by exploring a variety of options that do not require consent of all treaty parties and can be set in motion by a small group of like-minded countries.
  • TNI’s proposal for an expert advisory group on reforming the UN drug control system is backed by Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Czech Republic, Panama, Costa Rica and Jamaica
Start elaborating viable scenarios for countries to legally reconcile cannabis regulation with their international treaty obligations.
  • Report on international law seminar published; Brookings Institution paper presented in Washington, D.C., Vienna, New York and Beijing and widely used and cited.


Project in Numbers

  • 140 stakeholders including government officials from 26 countries participate in 3 Informal Policy Dialogues (Puerto Rico, Uruguay, Colombia)
  • 2 Expert Seminars, 1 Farmers Forum, 1 Drug Users roundtable, 6 Drug Policy Workshops
  • 36 articles in key media outlets
  • 4 Open Society Foundation drugs fellows trained at TNI for two weeks
  • 10 reports and publications; 6 strategic research papers; 14 articles and blogs
  • 3 side events at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs
  • Number of twitter followers increases 60%
  • 30 presentations at international drug policy meetings/conferences

Why This Issue Matters

For much of the last century, but especially since 1961, 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 denied support, health advice and pushed into more dangerous form of drug use. Meanwhile the main beneficiaries of prohibition have been drug traffickers and gangs who have extorted wealth and fuelled 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 protect and upholds the dignity of farmers and users.

Building country alliance in favour of drug policy reform

TNI worked throughout the year to prepare for the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs to be held in April 2016. TNI was very conscious that drug policy reform advances at the meeting were unlikely as the required consensus on the outcome document allows a few countries to block reform, so TNI focused on supporting the building of a coalition of pro-reform countries, facilitating dialogue and providing relevant advice and research, and advocating the establishment of an expert advisory group to review the UN drug policy control architecture.

TNI continued to give strong support and technical advice to the Mexican, Colombian and Uruguayan governments which have become global champions of drug policy reform. In July 2015, TNI staff met with high-level drug policy officials from across South America in Ecuador as they sought to forge South American consensus. The shifts away from the war on drugs on the continent continued as Chile, Belize, Costa Rica, and Ecuador all approved legislation in 2015 that reduced punitive approaches to drug use. Meanwhile in Europe, TNI coordinated closely with the Dutch government in the run-up to its presidency of the European Union, holding meetings with government officials in The Hague, Brussels, Vienna, Germany and Italy.

TNI also expanded its outreach and dialogue efforts in the Caribbean nations, holding an important policy dialogue in Puerto Rico and building a strong working relationship with the Jamaican government. Jamaica approved a law in 2015 regulating the cultivation and consumption of ganja (cannabis) for medicinal, religious and research purposes as well as the decriminalisation of possession for personal use. The nation also championed TNI’s proposal of an expert advisory group to the UN, supported by Ecuador, Uruguay, Colombia, Czech Republic, Panama and Costa Rica.

As well as advice, TNI  prepared 6 strategic research papers on the UN conventions including a briefing on cannabis policy reform in Europe, a primer on human rights and drug policy, and analysis of the prospects for treaty reform.

“We must focus our vision on human needs, not on the substance.”
– Milton Romani, during the UNASUR seminar in Quito.

Halting of Ketamine scheduling

In March 2015, TNI working closely with the World Health Organization and other NGOs, succeeded in preventing the scheduling of ketamine under the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The proposal had been put on the table by the Chinese government on the grounds of risks of abuse, but it would have had catastrophic global health effects as it is an essential anaesthetic used widely in developing countries.

TNI co-wrote a fact sheet, signed by more than forty medical and civil society organisations from around the world (including the leading medical journal The Lancet) and then lobbied successfully to mobilise governments against scheduling the substance, leading the Chinese government to withdraw the proposal.

Giving voice to farmers

TNI has consistently advocated the rights of farmers involved in the cultivation of crops used for illicit drugs production, who often face repression and violence, and whose rights to livelihoods and dignity are frequently denied. TNI believes that justice and effectiveness of drug policies requires farmers to be involved in designing drug policy.

In 2015, TNI built on its long-term relationships with farmers in Asia, Latin America and Africa to ensure that their interests were properly represented in the UNGASS preparations. Much of this preparation went into an historic gathering of farmers (held in January 2016) and the establishment of a Growers’ Forum with a website and media presence. TNI also supported national efforts in favour of farmers. For example in Myanmar, TNI was able to ensure that opium farmers were able to participate for the very first time in a high-level policy meeting with the Myanmar government.

As a result of our work, TNI’s Pien Metaal was elected as a member of the Civil Society Task Force to promote and facilitate the participation of opium, coca and cannabis farmers in the UNGASS process.

“we do not want to be regarded as criminals. We demand to be involved in decision making processes about drug policies and development programmes that are affecting our lives.”
– Myanmar Farmers Forum, September 2015


Dialogues and training open the door to more change

TNI’s success on drug policy reform draws on a tried and tested methodology of providing solid technical research on the need for  reform and then providing safe dialogue spaces for government officials to explore different approaches with academics and NGOs. In 2015, TNI co-hosted important policy dialogues in Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Colombia and Myanmar. In the latter, this helped influence a new law proposal that would reduce criminalisation of drug users.

TNI also helped build capacity of a new generation of drug policy reformers by organising training for four participants from Latin America and the Caribbean in the Netherlands, teaching them about the workings of the global drug control system, and best practices in advocacy and communication. All fellows are now actively involved in drug policy advocacy in their home countries.


Martin Jelsma
TNI Drugs and Democracy Programme Director

Ernestien Jensema
Team Coordinator

Pien Metaal
Latin America Drug Law Reform Project Coordinator

Tom Blickman
Senior Project Officer

Tom Kramer
Senior Research Associate, Myanmar

Amira Armenta (left in January 2016)
Programme Assistant

David Bewley-Taylor
Associate Fellow

Ricardo Vargas
Associate Fellow

Tereza Filipkova (Czech Republic)
Clara Must (Uruguay)
Dania Putri (Indonesia)

Major publications

Fact Sheet on the Proposal to Discuss International Scheduling of Ketamine at the 58th CND
Cannabis policy reform in Europe: Bottom up rather than top down.
Primer on Human Rights and Drug Policy
UNGASS 2016: Prospects for Treaty Reform and UN System-Wide Coherence on Drug Policy
Ayahuasca: From the Amazon to the Global Village
UNGASS 2016: Background memo on the proposal to establish an expert advisory group
The UN Drug Control Conventions
Timeline – Fumigation in Colombia

Partners and Networks


  • Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP)
  • International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC)
  • Open Society Foundations (OSF)


  • Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho, CEDD) Latin America
  • Intercambios Asociación Civil, Argentina
  • DeJusticia, 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
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), US


  • Lawyers Collective, India
  • Paung Ku, Myanmar
  • Burnet Institute, Myanmar
  • Asian Harm Reduction Network, Myanmar
  • Metta Development Foundation, Myanmar


  • Forum Droghe – Fuoriluogo, Italy
  • University of Utrecht (Criminology), Netherlands
  • Transform Drug Policy Foundation, UK
  • Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO), Swansea University, UK
  • International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, UK
  • Release, UK
  • Diogenis Association, Greece
  • Energy Control, Spain
  • Observatorio de Cultivos Declarados Ilícitos (OCDI), Spain
  • International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Services (ICEERS), Spain
  • Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Germany