Wednesday, June 24, 2009

World Drug Report Preface majors on legalisation

Below is the text from the Preface to World Drug Report 2009 - dominated by a detailed rebuttal of the growing calls for a debate on legal regulation of drug production and supply. We have deconstructed these kind of critiques so many times before, we won’t be doing it again here - other than to observe it is the same confused mix of misrepresentations, straw man arguments, and logical fallacies that we are used to hearing from the UNODC's drug warriors. The particularly strange thing here though is that some of the analysis of the problem, the critique at least, is actually fairly good - it's where it leads that is so extraordinary....

See previous for comprehensive deconstruction:

Firstly, it might be useful to view this preface as a barometer of the debate globally, and of Transform and other reform NGOs having a real impact on the international debate at the highest levels, including the UNODC. It is a reflection of the progress the reform movement has made that the legalization/regulation issue takes up so much of the space in the preface, and that the UNODC feels the need to go on the defensive this prominently.

Secondly, we would suggest that it is indicative of an institutional problem at UNODC, that something as internally inconsistent as this passes muster and is allowed into the public domain. They fully acknowledge that prohibition, under the auspices of the UN drug agencies and international drug control infrastructure, has been a generational disaster on multiple fronts - and yet then call for more of the same, brushing off those who call for a debate on alternatives with the offensive and childish smear of being 'pro-drugs'. Costa has a seemingly unique politician's ability to be simultaneously insightful and manifestly wrong, demonstrating a similar trick with those who challenge him by being both conciliatory and offensive.

Thirdly and last, it is not all bad. The text makes clear reference to the need to address wellbeing:

“The problem can only be solved by addressing the problem of slums and dereliction in our cities, through renewal of infrastructures and investment in people – especially by assisting the youth, who are vulnerable to drugs and crime, with education, jobs and sport.” (our emphasis)

So if the only answer to drug misuse is to deal with the social problems that underlie it - where does that leave all that punitive enforcement?

Preface to World Drug Report 2009

The end of the first century of drug control (it all started in Shanghai in 1909) coincided with the closing of the UNGASS decade (launched in 1998 by a General Assembly Special Session on Drugs). These anniversaries stimulated reflection on the effectiveness, and the limitations, of drug policy. The review resulted in the reaffirmation that illicit drugs continue to pose a health danger to humanity. That’s why drugs are, and should remain, controlled. With this sanction in mind, Member States confirmed unequivocal support for the UN Conventions that have established the world drug control system.

At the same time, UNODC has highlighted some negative, obviously unintended effects of drug control, foreshadowing a needed debate about the ways and means to deal with them. Of late, there has been a limited but growing chorus among politicians, the press, and even in public opinion saying: drug control is not working. The broadcasting volume is still rising and the message spreading.

Much of this public debate is characterized by sweeping generalizations and simplistic solutions. Yet, the very heart of the discussion underlines the need to evaluate the effectiveness of the current approach. Having studied the issue on the basis of our data, UNODC has concluded that, while changes are needed, they should be in favour of different means to protect society against drugs, rather than by pursuing the different goal of abandoning such protection.

A. What’s the repeal debate about?

Several arguments have been put forward in favour of repealing drug controls, based on (i) economic, (ii) health, and (iii) security grounds, and a combination thereof.

I. The economic argument for drug legalization says: legalize drugs, and generate tax income. This argument is gaining favour, as national administrations seek new sources of revenue during the current economic crisis.

This legalize and tax argument is un-ethical and uneconomical. It proposes a perverse tax, generation upon generation, on marginalized cohorts (lost to addiction) to stimulate economic recovery. Are the partisans of this cause also in favour of legalizing and taxing other seemingly intractable crimes like human trafficking? Modern-day slaves (and there are millions of them) would surely generate good tax revenue to rescue failed banks.

The economic argument is also based on poor fiscal logic: any reduction in the cost of drug control (due to lower law enforcement expenditure) will be offset by much higher expenditure on public health (due to the surge of drug consumption). The moral of the story: don’t make wicked transactions legal just because they are hard to control.

II. Others have argued that, following legalization, a health threat (in the form of a drug epidemic) could be avoided by state regulation of the drug market. Again, this is naive and myopic. First, the tighter the controls (on anything), the bigger and the faster a parallel (criminal) market will emerge – thus invalidating the concept.

Second, only a few (rich) countries could afford such elaborate controls. What about the rest (the majority) of humanity? Why unleash a drug epidemic in the developing world for the sake of libertarian arguments made by a pro-drug lobby that has the luxury of access to drug treatment? Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled – they are controlled because they are harmful; and they do harm whether the addict is rich and beautiful, or poor and marginalized.

Drug statistics keep speaking loud and clear. Past runaway growth has flattened out and the drug crisis of the 1990s seems under control. This 2009 Report provides further evidence that drug cultivation (opium and coca) are flat or down. Most importantly, major markets for opiates (Europe and South East Asia), cocaine (North America), and cannabis (North America, Oceania and Europe) are in decline. The increase in consumption of synthetic stimulants, particularly in East Asia and the Middle East, is cause for concern, although use is declining in developed countries.

III. The most serious issue concerns organized crime. All market activity controlled by the authority generates parallel, illegal transactions, as stated above. Inevitably, drug controls have generated a criminal market of macro- economic dimensions that uses violence and corruption to mediate between demand and supply. Legalize drugs, and organized crime will lose its most profitable line of activity, critics therefore say.

Not so fast. UNODC is well aware of the threats posed by international drug mafias. Our estimates of the value of the drug market (in 2005) were ground-breaking. The Office was also first to ring the alarm bell on the threat of drug trafficking to countries in West and East Africa, the Caribbean, Central America and the Balkans. In doing so we have highlighted the security menace posed by organized crime, a matter now periodically addressed by the UN Security Council.

Having started this drugs/crime debate, and having pondered it extensively, we have concluded that these drug-related, organized crime arguments are valid. They must be addressed. I urge governments to recalibrate the policy mix, without delay, in the direction of more controls on crime, without fewer controls on drugs. In other words, while the crime argument is right, the conclusions reached by its proponents are flawed.

Why? Because we are not counting beans here: we are counting lives. Economic policy is the art of counting beans (money) and handling trade-offs: inflation vs. employment, consumption vs. savings, internal vs. external balances. Lives are different. If we start trading them off, we end up violating somebody’s human rights. There cannot be exchanges, no quid-pro-quos, when health and security are at stake: modern society must, and can, protect both these assets with unmitigated determination.

I appeal to the heroic partisans of the human rights cause worldwide, to help UNODC promote the right to health of drug addicts: they must be assisted and reintegrated into society. Addiction is a health condition and those affected by it should not be imprisoned, shot-at or, as suggested by the proponent of this argument, traded off in order to reduce the security threat posed by international mafias. Of course, the latter must be addressed, and below is our advice.

B. A better policy mix

The crime/drugs nexus was the subject of a Report entitled Organized Crime and its Threat to Security: tackling a disturbing consequence of drug control1 that I presented to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the Crime Commission in 2009. Because of the importance of this subject, we have devoted the thematic chapter of this year’s Report to examining further the issue and its policy implications. Here are some of the main points.

First, law enforcement should shift its focus from drug users to drug traffickers. Drug addiction is a health condition: people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution. Attention must be devoted to heavy drug users. They consume the most drugs, cause the greatest harm to themselves and society – and generate the most income to drug mafias. Drug courts and medical assistance are more likely to build healthier and safer societies than incarceration. I appeal to Member States to pursue the goal of universal access to drug treatment as a commitment to save lives and reduce drug demand: the fall of supply, and associated crime revenues, will follow. Let’s progress towards this goal in the years ahead, and then assess its beneficial impact on the next occasion Member States will meet to review the effectiveness of drug policy (2015).

Second, we must put an end to the tragedy of cities out of control. Drug deals, like other crimes, take place mostly in urban settings controlled by criminal groups. This problem will worsen in the mega-cities of the future, if governance does not keep pace with urbanization.

Yet, arresting individuals and seizing drugs for their personal use is like pulling weeds – it needs to be done again the next day. The problem can only be solved by addressing the problem of slums and dereliction in our cities, through renewal of infrastructures and investment in people – especially by assisting the youth, who are vulnerable to drugs and crime, with education, jobs and sport. Ghettos do not create junkies and the jobless: it is often the other way around. And in the process mafias thrive.

Third, and this is the most important point, governments must make use, individually and collectively, of the international agreements against uncivil society. This means to ratify and apply the UN Conventions against Organized Crime (TOC) and against Corruption (CAC), and related protocols against the trafficking of people, arms and migrants. So far, the international community has not taken these international obligations seriously. While slum dwellers suffer, Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten Latin America, and mafias penetrate bankrupt financial institutions, junior negotiators at these Conventions’ Conferences of the Parties have been arguing about bureaucratic processes and arcane notions of inclusiveness, ownership, comprehensiveness, and non-ranking. There are large gaps in the implementation of the Palermo and the Merida Conventions, years after their entry into force, to the point that a number of countries now face a crime situation largely caused by their own choice. This is bad enough.

Worse is the fact that, quite often vulnerable neighbors pay an even greater price. There is much more our countries can do to face the brutal force of organized crime: the context within which mafias operate must also be addressed.

•• Money-laundering is rampant and practically unopposed, at a time when interbank-lending has dried up.

The recommendations devised to prevent the use of financial institutions to launder criminal money, today are honored mostly in the breach. At a time of major bank failures, money doesn’t smell, bankers seem to believe. Honest citizens, struggling in a time of economic hardship, wonder why the proceeds of crime – turned into ostentatious real estate, cars, boats and planes – are not seized.

•• Another context deserving attention concerns one of humanity’s biggest assets, the internet. It has changed our life, especially the way we conduct business, communication, research and entertainment. But the web has also been turned into a weapon of mass destruction by criminals (and terrorists). Surprisingly, and despite the current crime wave, calls for new international arrangements against money-laundering and cyber-crime remain un-answered. In the process, drug policy gets the blame and is subverted.

C. A double “NO”

To conclude, transnational organized crime will never be stopped by drug legalization. Mafias coffers are equally nourished by the trafficking of arms, people and their organs, by counterfeiting and smuggling, racketeering and loan-sharking, kidnapping and piracy, and by violence against the environment (illegal logging, dumping of toxic waste, etc). The drug/crime trade-off argument, debated above, is no other than the pursuit of the old drug legalization agenda, persistently advocated by the pro-drug-lobby (Note that the partisans of this argument would not extend it to guns whose control – they say – should actually be enforced and extended: namely, no to guns, yes to drugs).

So far the drug legalization agenda has been opposed fiercely, and successfully, by the majority of our society. Yet, anti-crime policy must change. It is no longer sufficient to say: no to drugs. We have to state an equally vehement: no to crime.

There is no alternative to improving both security and health. The termination of drug control would be an epic mistake. Equally catastrophic is the current disregard of the security threat posed by organized crime.

Antonio Maria Costa
Executive Director
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Updates and further info:


Transform quoted in the Guardian coverage:
UN report shows fall in opium and cocaine production

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition have issued a press statement and
have launched a letter writing campaign in response to the UNODC arguments.


Alejandro from Mexico said...

Was it just me or did someone else pick up the massive contradiction underlying the WDR's main argument for continued prohibition? In section 2.1 of the report, the UNODC crowd pretty much concedes that a legalize-tax-and-regulate framework would work...but only in developed countries. Developing countries are thought unable to impose meaningful taxes and regulations on a legal drug industry, and therefore, would see their consumption levels explode. Thus, global prohibition must continue for the sake of poor countries (the condescencion is almost unbearable).
Yet those same developing countries are expected to, simultaneously,: a) succesfully interdict supply; b) reform police forces and judicial systems; c)fight corruption in the face of massive illegal profits; d)address the problem of slums and dereliction in cities; e) close open drug-markets; e)provide universal access to drug treatment; etc. etc. If the governments of developing countries are considered too weak to tax and regulate small national drug markets, why would anyone think them capable of performing that daunting list of tasks? The contradiction is so glaring that my eyes hurt.

Sohila said...

A-II section of the report is a very valid arguement, we can't go out on a limb and hope that the information and education will have a significant impact on the explosion of drug use, though this point is often countered with the reasoning that provided and regulated drugs would still not appeal to those people who were fixed on not using drugs in the first place. It does crack open that section of society (and this cuts across development divides) that would otherwise not be inclined towards drug use due to its legal rammifications. But then again I fundamentally disagree with this argument that drug misuse fuels deprivation when it could not be more obvious that it is the other way round. Last point- I object to his banding of rich and beautiful together.

Anonymous said...

This is simply a joke and makes a mockery of the entire UN system and the notion of human rights.

That Costa is complicit in human rights violations, I have no doubt.

Steve Rolles said...

from Sanho Tree:

Q) According to a recently released UN report, coca cultivation in Colombia fell by 18 percent in 2008, in stark contrast to the previous year’s 27 percent increase. Meanwhile, neighboring Bolivia and Peru saw 6 percent and 4.5 percent increases respectively in the cultivation of coca, the main ingredient of cocaine. What
explains the turnaround in illicit coca cultivation in Colombia? What implications do the
new UN numbers have for drug policy in the region? What tactics can turn back production in Peru and Bolivia, and will their governments pursue those?

A) Guest Comment: Sanho Tree: "Beware of lights at the end of the tunnel because this one is likely an oncoming train". When I was in southern Colombia four months ago, people were in a terrible state of economic distress and replanting coca in earnest. Today the food
security situation in some regions has reached crisis levels. Why are campesinos replanting in such a hurry? A massive pyramid scheme by DMG corporation -- with branch offices in major coca growing centers -- had just been shut down by the government in November costing victims close to a billion dollars.

Unlike other Ponzi schemes, owever, the impoverished victims continue to worship David Murcia Guzmán, the founder of DMG, for he did what the state never cared enough to do. Though likely a paramilitary money laundering/pyramid scheme, DMG provided a huge influx of capital and credit much like our economic stimulus package. The multiplier effect allowed cocaleros to survive after their fields had been fumigated or manually eradicated. Ironically, as coca eradication escalated, the local economy grew
because of DMG. People opened shops, restaurants, and transitioned into non-coca related businesses.

With the collapse of DMG, those who haven’t joined the ranks of the more than four million internally displaced are furiously replanting
coca deeper in the jungle and in dispersed patterns difficult to detect or eradicate. The lesson here is that when there is food security, many things are possible. Without it, little is possible because people panic and will grow the only easily transportable crop for which there are ready buyers: coca. If the state is willing
to provide an honest stimulus, the impending rebound in coca may yet be mitigated."

Steve Rolles said...

great observation Alejandro

Anonymous said...

'Are the partisans of this cause also in favour of legalizing and taxing other seemingly intractable crimes like human trafficking?'
As a partisan I am indeed in favour of legalizing human trafficking. I think I'l call it immigration.