About the Drugs and Democracy project

TNI’s Drugs & Democracy programme analyses drug policies and trends in the illicit drugs market. TNI examines the underlying causes of drug production and consumption and the impacts of current drug policies on conflict, development,and democracy. The programme facilitates dialogue and advocates evidence-based policies, guided by principles of harm reduction and human rights for users and producers.

The Drugs programme:

  • Produces rigorous new research and analysis that emerges from on-the-ground interviews with peasant-producers, drugs consumers, traffickers, government and international officials in critical drugs-producing countries such as Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Burma and Thailand
  • Analyses, critiques and proposes reforms of international drugs policy coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).
  • Advocates an end to counter-productive ideological wars on drugs, and its replacement by evidence-based policies guided by the principles of harm reduction and human rights for users and producers, as well as the cultural and traditional uses of substances.
  • Promotes humane and just drug policies, supporting drug law reform and sustainable alternative development for the most vulnerable actors in drug markets, the producers and consumers
  • Brings together key government, academic and NGO stakeholders in informal Drug Policy Dialogues to examine critical issues of legislative reform, drug trafficking, prison conditions and international drugs policy. See our collection on these dialogues here.
  • In addition we also hold Expert Seminars. The collection of reports can be found here.

Summary of Activities 

Read about Activities in 2016 in the projects section of our annual report.

See report: 10 years of TNI Drugs and Democracy Programme 1998-2008

TNI takes a non-judgemental approach to the drugs issue because TNI wants to understand the varied motivations of people who enter the illegal drugs economy. TNI does this rooted in a desire to reduce the violence and human rights abuses related to both the drugs trade and the attempts to repress it. Understanding - which is not the same as condoning - and dialogue are indispensable for de-escalation of conflict and for moving forward with a human rights based agenda.

TNI “has consistently provided the most trustworthy analysis …. Martin Jelsma is increasingly recognized as one of, if not the, outstanding strategists in terms of how international institutions deal with drugs and drug policy.” Martin Jelsma, Coordinator of Drugs and Democracy Programme receiving the Alfred R. Lindesmith Award in 2005

Case study: TNI and UNGASS -  From zero tolerance to harm reduction

‘A drug free world – We can do it!’, was the catchphrase under which world leaders gathered in New York in June 1998 at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem. Ten years on, the consensus behind a unrealistic and counter-productive goal which caused negative social impacts on the ground has broken down.

In its place, a new paradigm is emerging with growing support for policies advocated for many years by TNI:

  • harm reduction measures such as opioid substitution treatmenet, needle-exchange programmes and drug consumption rooms,
  • increased focus on the need to develop effective alternative development programmes for farmers illicitly producing opium, coca and cannabis,
  • agreement that drugs policies need to be applied with full respect for human rights,
  • and acknowledgement of the need to revise Drug Control conventions, in particular on cannabis and coca. 

No single institute is able to change international drug control policy, but TNI played – and still plays – a significant role in the course of the policy debate and constructing some of the cornerstones for a change in vision.


TNI’s Drugs programme started in 1995, emerging from TNI’s work with peasant farmers in Latin America that sought to defend the human rights of people caught up in the illegal drugs economy and repressed by the “war on drugs.”

The initial focus on Latin America led to work on issues such as the effects of chemical spraying in Colombia; the establishment of new US military anti-drug bases in Ecuador, the Dutch Antilles, El Salvador and Ecuador; Plan Colombia and the drug-related obstacles in the Colombian peace talks between FARC guerrilla and the government; and stepped-up forced eradication operations in Bolivia and Peru with human rights violations and deepening social conflicts. This work led to strong relationships with local partners across Latin America.

It is not always easy to explain how we manage to connect the local to the global, in one moment present at a cocaleros meeting in the Andes or talking to heroin users and dealers on the Burmese border, and the next moment participating in a policy conference on alternative development, the EU drugs strategy or UN drug control.” (Martin Jelsma in 10 years: TNI’s Drugs and Democracy Programme, 1998-2008)

In the run-up to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 1998, TNI increasingly became involved in calling for reform of UN Drug policies, captured in the international drug control conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988. The knowledge that TNI built up in working on the UN earned TNI the reputation as one of the most knowledgeable watchdogs of the UN drug control process. At the same time, this increased global focus also led TNI to build up research and analysis on the drugs trade in Central and East Asia.

Since 2004, TNI has initiated a series of informal policy dialogues on drugs, with the aim of providing a confidential environment to talk about drugs transparently and free from taboos. These have brought together government officials from more than 30 countries along with representatives of international drugs policy bodies and non-governmental experts.


All efforts are guided by our intention to contribute to a more coherent policy approach where illicit drugs are regarded as a cross-cutting issue within the broader policy goals of poverty reduction, sustainable development, human security, public health promotion, human rights protection, conflict prevention, protection of the environment and good governance.

The programme does field research, fosters political debate, provides information to officials and journalists, coordinates international campaigns and conferences, produces analytical articles and documents, and maintains an electronic information service on the topic.