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Refocusing metrics: can the sustainable development goals help break the “metrics trap” and modernise international drug control policy?

David R. Bewley-Taylor (Department of Political and Cultural Studies, Swansea University, Swansea, UK)

Drugs and Alcohol Today

ISSN: 1745-9265

Article publication date: 5 June 2017




The purpose of this paper is to examine the extent to which the dominant metrics currently used to measure the success of the UN based global drug prohibition regime are in many ways inadequate and consequently contribute to systemic inertia. Within this context, it seeks to explore the potential of explicitly linking drug policy to the recently launched sustainable development agenda (SDA) and the associated sustainable development goals (SDGs) to initiate a change in approach.


Framing the topic in terms of international relations (IR) and regime analysis, prominent examples of where current metrics are imprecise (the relationship between production and seizures), misconceived (drug use) and missing (a range of drug and drug policy related harms) are explored. Attention is then given to an examination of international development as a model for measuring drug control outcomes, including a discussion of the SDGs in general and the intersection between drug policy interventions and several goals in particular.


While aware of the complexity of the issue area, the paper finds that there are considerable shortcomings in the way international drug policy outcomes are currently assessed. Although methodological problems are likely to persist, linking drug policy with the SDGs and their associated metrics offers the potential to help to shift the focus of international policy in a manner that would benefit not only UN system-wide coherence on the issue, but also assist in the achievement of the regime’s own overarching goal; to safeguard the “health and welfare” of humankind.

Practical implications

With the next high-level review of international drug policy due to take place in 2019, the paper offers policy makers with a way to begin to refocus drug policy metrics, and subsequently review outcomes, in line with the UN system-wide SDA.


As an emerging domain of inquiry, the paper not only explores a hitherto largely unexplored – yet increasingly important – facet of UN level policy evaluation, formulation and implementation, but also helps to fill a gap in the IR literature on regime dynamics.



Conflicts of interest: the author confirms there are no conflicts of interest.

Earlier versions of this paper, co-authored with Christian Schneider, were published in German in SuchtMagazin 4/2016 (, in French in Dépendances, October 2016, Numéro 58 ( and as a Swansea University, Global Drug Policy Observatory, Working Paper, Can the Sustainable Development Goals Help Improve International Drug Control? (2016) Global Drug Policy Observatory Working Paper, No. 2, September, Global Drug Policy Observatory, Swansea ( Thanks go to David Mansfield, Rebecca Schleifer, Jonathan Bradbury and the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and feedback. The author is also grateful to Dion Curry and Christian Schneider for their assistance, with the latter being crucial to the development of many of the ideas contained herein. The usual caveat applies, with any errors of fact or interpretation being the sole responsibility of the author. This paper was written as part of a work stream within an Open Society Foundations (OSF) Global Drug Policy Program Grant (No. OR2015-25384). The views within and conclusion of the paper do not necessarily represent those of OSF.


Bewley-Taylor, D.R. (2017), "Refocusing metrics: can the sustainable development goals help break the “metrics trap” and modernise international drug control policy?", Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 98-112.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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