Social innovation laboratories on drug policies

in COPOLAD III program

Agirre Lehendakaria Center participates in the COPOLAD III program. Our work in this project focuses on designing, implementing and evaluating social innovation laboratories specialized in drug policy.

The relationship between drug control and development is, by the very nature of both issues, complex and multidimensional. On the one hand, the elements that shape and influence the human development of our communities strongly determine how the drug phenomenon occurs in our societies. On the other hand, some aspects of the drug phenomenon, but mainly the policies traditionally developed to deal with it, have a strong effect on sustainable human development.


However, drug control agencies and development institutions and communities have tended to operate in isolation from each other. Policies emanating from the International Drug Control Regime, based on the 3 UN Conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988 and centered on a single drug control paradigm characterized by the prominence of criminal law, law enforcement and abstinence approaches to consumption, have rarely taken development issues into account, with the exception of the limited alternative development (AD) programs put in place. Most efforts in this area have been neither effective nor sustainable, mainly due to the fact that the root causes and incentives that sustain illicit crop cultivation or drug trafficking have not received sufficient attention and political will to address them.


As a result, 63 years of implementing policies emanating from the international drug regime have left an indelible mark on sustainable human development, imposing heavy burdens on economies, the environment, democratic governance and, most importantly, essential elements of the social fabric.


The drug phenomenon is, therefore, a wicked problem. In order to address its multiple dimensions, the COPOLAD III program seeks to promote technical and political dialogue between Latin America and the Caribbean and the European Union. To this end, it promotes multi-stakeholder and multi-directional international cooperation tools. In other words, it establishes bi-regional, bilateral, triangular or South-South relations between various actors.


With this, as in previous phases, COPOLAD III seeks to create a space for the analysis and discussion of the main challenges related to the design and implementation of drug policies. Ultimately, it seeks to initiate transformative and innovative processes to improve the effectiveness of interventions and thus promote the sustainable development of communities affected by the complex problem of drugs.


Implementation of the program began in February 2021 and will continue for 48 months. During this period, interventions will be carried out in 31 countries. The program, in addition to bringing together member state institutions involved in drug policy, is co-led by the International Italo-Latin American Organization (IILA) together with FIAPP. The Deustche Gesellchaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), for their part, participate directly in certain actions promoted, being both entities beneficiaries of subsidies.


As for Agirre Lehendakaria Center, its role and task is focused on adapting an approach of integrating social innovation capabilities and tools in the daily work of the program. This, at two different levels of action: regional, with the creation of a network of laboratories in different countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and a learning community on the process; and local, supporting 5 laboratories in the region where the approach is applied to each context with specific support from the Agirre Lehendakaria Center team.


The incorporation of innovation tools in COPOLAD III seeks to support the development of innovative interventions and new solutions to effectively address specific drug-related problems in Latin American and Caribbean countries. These innovation tools will make it possible to explore new spaces in a dynamic search for effective, sustainable and people-centered solutions to drug-related problems.

Social innovation laboratories within the framework of the COPOLAD III program

Laboratory of Chile, Maule Region, focusing on children, adolescents and young people at risk, whose rights have been violated and who are under the care of the State.


Cali Laboratory, Colombia, focusing on vulnerable youth in urban areas.


Santander de Quilichao Laboratory, Colombia, with a focus on vulnerable youth in semi-rural areas.


Ucayali Laboratory, Peru, for the design of an early warning system to detect situations of human rights violations in the native community Flor de Ucayali.


Montevideo Laboratory, Uruguay, with a focus on women with children and adolescents in situations of violation of rights in urban areas as part of the value chain of illicit drug trafficking.


Conclusions and key learnings

  • Social innovation labs will enable local teams to generate adaptive governance systems or joint learning to address complex challenges through the systematization of contrasting spaces, co-creation, mapping of actors and initiatives and deep listening.


  • The social innovation approach, flexible and adaptive in nature, aims to reinforce initiatives already underway in the territories through the co-creation of new ideas, while facilitating spaces for collaboration between actors and joint learning. The experimentation portfolios offer local actors a safe space in which to experiment at all five levels of impact. While there are structural, regulatory and perceptual barriers to innovate, local teams are developing low-risk (existing initiatives tailored to the needs identified in the listening), medium (pilots) and high-risk (prototypes or entirely new ideas) prototype activation plans.


  • The objective of the laboratories is to contribute to generate a social innovation infrastructure in the territories, through the generation and transfer of basic social innovation capabilities in local teams. In the case of Chile, the SENDA Maule teams have scaled-in the laboratory process by using their own infrastructure to systematize spaces for listening, mapping, contrasting and co-creation.


  • In order to learn how to systematize social innovation within the COPOLAD III program itself, Agirre Center suggests connecting in a transversal way the different initiatives promoted by COPOLAD in each country, guaranteeing a comprehensive portfolio approach.

Cali, Sucre neighborhood (Colombia)

Profiles and Narratives
Impact Levels
  • Community actions 40
  • Small and mid scale initiatives 10
  • Large scale initiatives 8
  • New public services 26
  • New regulation mechanisms 7
Key narrative

Estamos solos, solo la acción comunitaria nos puede llevar hacia el cambio

Key narrative

Change is about connecting with institutions and the private sector.

Key narrative

Change is already happening. Users are part of our community.

Key narrative

There are no opportunities for the future, this leads to consumption and micro-trafficking.

Santander de Quilichao (Colombia)

Profiles and Narratives
Impact Levels
  • Community actions 14
  • Small and mid scale initiatives 10
  • Large scale initiatives 7
  • New public services 16
  • New regulation mechanisms 6
JobAgente público
Key narrative

Change cannot be achieved in isolation; it requires collaborations between different sectors.

Key narrative

Lack of opportunities and stigma pushes young people into drug use and micro-trafficking

Key narrative

Access to education and culture is the key to prevention

Key narrative

Public policies are needed to support women and mothers who are heads of household

Maule Region (Chile)

Profiles and Narratives
Impact Levels
  • Community actions 11
  • Small and mid scale initiatives 2
  • Large scale initiatives 3
  • New public services 31
  • New regulation mechanisms 5
Key narrative

We want to do, but reality forces us to prioritize. We are not ready to innovate.

Key narrative

It is too complex to incorporate the voices of children and youth in program design. In practice we do not do it

Key narrative

Until the community gets involved, there will be no change. We are all responsible for consumption

Key narrative

Change is about addressing the gap between institutions and communities

Key narrative

Los servicios sociales no son suficientes y nos vemos obligadas a dar respuesta desde cada familia

Key narrative

The average does not work, we have to be able to give segmented answers.

Key narrative

We need to enable/facilitate structures in the public sector in order to innovate.

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