Today Ministers from around the world are in Vienna for the High Level Meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs to set a new ten-year UN drug strategy. Whilst fear and inertia has generally prevailed amongst our political leaders, we have also heard a huge range of serious voices calling for a debate on replacing drugs prohibition with legal regulation and control. At the same time a concerted effort has been made by Antonio Maria Costa the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), to smear those calling for reform as “pro-drug”.
The effect has been to stifle critics of the status quo, and make a rational and mature exploration of alternative approaches into a political no-go area, by inaccurately and offensively portraying advocates of change as ‘pro-drug’.
This was the latest in a series of similar public comments over several years seemingly based on the absurd false binary that since Costa views his position as ‘anti-drug’ then anyone who disagrees with him must be ‘pro-drug’. However, despite his attempts to malign those calling for debate, many have had the courage to call for reform.
So who should be included under Costa’s ‘pro-drug’ banner?
In the run up to the last UN 10 year drug strategy meeting of this kind in 1998, Rowan Williams (now Arch-Bishop of Canterbury) and Prof. Colin Blakemore, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council, were amongst over 500 prominent academics, scientists, political and religious leaders, including a number of Nobel laureates and former presidents, who signed a letter (1) stating that:
"Persisting in our current policies will only result in more drug abuse, more empowerment of drug markets and criminals, and more disease and suffering. Too often those who call for open debate, rigorous analysis of current policies, and serious consideration of alternatives are accused of "surrendering”. But the true surrender is when fear and inertia combine to shut off debate, suppress critical analysis, and dismiss all alternatives to current policies.”
Adair Turner, Peer and Chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority has said (2):
"And if we want to help sustainable economic development in the drug-ridden states such as Colombia and Afghanistan, we should almost certainly liberalise drugs use in our societies, combating abuse via education, not prohibition, rather than launching unwinnable 'wars on drugs' which simply criminalise whole societies."
David Cameron MP (now leader of the Opposition), Tom Watson MP (now a Cabinet Office Minister), Bridget Prentice MP (now a minister in the Ministry of Justice) when on the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2003, signed up to a report (3) saying:
“We recommend that the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma.”
David Cameron MP also said at that time (3):
“[I]n Holland you can walk into a café and buy cannabis quite openly…I wonder why we should have such a concern if a country like Holland or elsewhere in the world wanted to go a bit further. It is virtually legal in Holland, but if they wanted to go a bit further, why should we be so concerned? We might learn something from a country taking a different and radical approach, and we could see whether it worked or whether it was a disaster.”
“I do not know whether it would be an unfair summary, but … the Government position on the two UN bodies seems to be that they are pretty hopeless talking shops that set very odd targets, that use extraordinary statistics, but we have to take part, we have to be there and try and have an input.”
This week a cross-party group of 26 peers including David Puttnam and Molly Meacher wrote (4):
“What is now needed is an admission that most existing policies have failed and an open debate on what alternative policies should be adopted for the future…To this end we suggest that the UN should now establish an intergovernmental panel charged with the task of examining all possible alternative policies for the control of the drugs trade.”
Recently, because of his concerns about drugs prohibition bankrolling paramilitary gangs (including the Real IRA) in Ireland Denis Bradley (former vice-chair of the police board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and Co-Chair of the Consultative Group on the Past) said (5):
“It might be time to legalise drugs. It might be time to create outlets licensed and under government control, to supply drugs to those who are already addicted and to those who wish to dabble. It might be time to cut the gangs off at the knees by making them economically redundant.”
Danny Kushlick of Transform said:
“The last ten years has seen fear and inertia prevail amongst our political leaders, but it has also seen a huge range of serious voices calling for a debate on replacing drugs prohibition with legal regulation and control. All of these calls have been ignored, sidelined or suppressed, and Ministers look set to rubber-stamp another ten-year strategy indistinguishable from the last, with political posturing again winning out.”
“A significant block to debate has been a very active campaign by the executive director of the UNODC to smear and caricature those calling for an exploration of alternatives to global prohibition as being “pro-drug”, in a way that is inaccurate and offensive to a large body of respected thinkers and commentators. Is Mr Costa labeling UK Ministers and the likes of Lord Adair Turner, David Cameron and Rowan Williams as pro-drug?”
"We can bring peace and stability to producer and transit countries, and end much of the harm in consumer countries only by ending the war on drugs and replacing it with an effective, just and humane system of regulation and control. For that to happen, world leaders must stop using the UN to shut down any real debate on alternatives to war, and listen to the voices from across the political spectrum calling for change."
3.Home Affairs Select Committee drugs inquiry quotes
- Recommendation 24, paragraph 267
- Cameron quote: Minutes of Evidence Home Affairs Committee 20 March 2003