I'm in New Orleans at the Drug Policy Alliance 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, and it was a fascinating opening day featuring as its center piece an address from Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director,United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, followed by a Q&A session.
The DPA conference in New Orleans
Transform blog regulars will have read about some of Costa's peculiar comments before (In the Independent on Sunday, on Swedish drug policy, and a particularly strange recent speech in Spain). In the context of some of his previous comments, and indeed his role overseeing the UN drug conventions that enshrine prohibition into the domestic laws of over 150 countries it may seem strange that he would accept and invitation to the worlds largest conference discussing the problems caused by prohibition and more just and effective policy alternatives. So his decision to attend must be applauded and is a historic first for the reform movement, but as he himself commented humorously there was an element of 'lamb to the slaughter' about proceedings.
Costa's speech the text of which is available on the UNODC site here) was well choreographed and superficially made some concessions to the critics of the broader UNODC approach. He implicitly conceded that supply side drug control efforts had been ineffective and that the best that could be claimed was 'containment' and 'stabilisation' of the problem, some way from the 1998 UNGASS commitment to a significant reduction by 2008. More significantly perhaps was an analytical perspective rarely if ever heard from the UNODC that unless demand was reduced, supply could not be prevented. He worded it, in the frank manner befitting an economist, like this:
I invite you all to imagine that this year, all drugs produced and trafficked around the world, were seized: the dream of law enforcement agencies. Well, when we wake up having had this dream, we would realize that the same amount of drugs - hundreds of tons of heroin, cocaine and cannabis - would be produced again next year. In other words, this first dream shows that, while law enforcement is necessary for drug control, it is not sufficient. New supply would keep coming on stream, year after year.
So let's dream a second time. Let's dream that, by some miracle, we can convince farmers around the world to eradicate the thousands of hectares of drug crops, replaced by the fruits of development assistance (in Afghanistan, Colombia, Morocco, and Myanmar). A great dream of course, but yet again one that would not on its own solve the world drug problem. Why? Because when we wake up after this second dream we would realize that other sources of supply would inevitably open up somewhere else on the planet, to satisfy the craving of millions of drug users around the world.
Whilst then proposing a the rather confusing argument (that because one prong - supply reduction - was futile, you therefore needed a two pronged approach - i.e .supply and demand reduction) it was a significant point for the head of the UNODC to concede.
He sought to distance himself from the notoriously stupid drug free world motto of 1998, and the phrase war on drugs, whilst also stating his support for effective treatment, prevention, eduction and harm reduction (although there was an unstated suggestion that these were policy elements that were the somehow the exclusive preserve of the prohibitionist position). But at least there was an unambiguous statement of support for harm reduction, which was welcomed after the embarrassments of the 'Dear Bobby' letter episode .
His response to the broad drug law reform / prohibition critique arguments were familiar, predictable and none could stand any sustained scrutiny (see the links above or Transform's 'After the War on Drugs, Tools for the Debate' for a more detailed deconstruction of the most of the points he makes). He conceded that prohibition fueled crime but that the health implications of abandoning it made the reform position untenable:
"I know your argument on this last point. Prohibition causes violence and crime by creating a lucrative black market for drugs: so, legalize drugs to defeat organized crime. Thus far, as an economist, I agree with you. But this is not only an economic argument. Legalization may reduce the profits to organized crime, but it will also increase the damage done to the health of individuals and society. Evidence shows a strong correlation between drug availability and drug abuse. Let us therefore reduce the availability of drugs - through tackling supply and demand - and thereby reduce the risks to health and security."
His comments received more detailed scrutiny in the Q&A session which followed, at which a number of leading drug law reformers, including Pat O'Hare (IHRA) Alex Wodak (Australian Drug Foundation) , Craig Reinarman (UC Santa Cruz), and Martin Jelsma (TNI Netherlands), offered a critical commentary on his speech.
At this point, faced with what were effectively un-answerable questions and observations, Costa slipped into evasive politician mode. A good example was when he was challenged, with the example of the Netherlands, on a comment he made about how availability correlates to prevalence of use. The point made to him was specifically that the Netherlands effectively had free cannabis availability, but average to low (European) levels of use. Costa's response was to accuse the Netherlands of 'poisoning the rest of Europe' with its amphetamine production. Whether this is true or not it had no bearing on the availability/prevalence question asked re cannabis. Costa preferred to reiterate his rather unpleasant sound bite that countries 'have the drug problem they deserve' (explored here).
Overall it was fairly predictable, and the significance really lies in the fact that it happened at all. How significant in the longer term is impossible to guess, but it does at least suggest that the movement is being taken seriously at the highest level and a decision has been made to develop and implement some sort of engagement strategy. That said, if this is the strongest factual and analytical defense of prohibition (and its institutions) that can be mustered then we can perhaps be a bit more optimistic, and we must assume they are very worried.
more detail and analysis at Drug War Rant and Reason Online