Last week I received a response from Antonio Maria Costa - Executive Director of UN Office on Drugs and Crime - to a letter requesting that he desist from calling advocates of legalisation and regulation 'pro-drug'.
Here is one example from his 2009 paper 'Organized crime and its threat to security - tackling a disturbing consequence of drug control':
"The crime and corruption associated with the drug trade are providing strong evidence to a vocal minority of pro-drug lobbyists to argue that the cure is worse than the disease, and that drug legalisation is the solution."
This is from the executive summary to the World Drug Report 2009:
"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?"
Mr Costa chose not to reply, only to respond.
Here is the letter I sent. The response is below.
Antonio Maria Costa
United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime
Vienna International Centre
PO Box 500
A 1400 Vienna
06 October 2009
Dear Mr Costa,
Re: ‘Pro-drugs’ comments
Thank you for your letter replying to mine of 1 Dec 2008, clarifying that it is organisations like Transform to whom you are referring when you suggested at the NGO event Beyond 2008, that our position could be summed up as “No to Marlboro, yes to skunk”. You use the term “pro drug lobby” regularly to describe those calling for drug law reform, for example in the preface to the World Drug Report 2009.
I would like to raise some significant concerns with you about the use of the phrase “pro drug” in reference to organisations such as ours. This term is used pejoratively to portray supporters of legalisation and regulation in a poor light. We believe it to be inappropriate for the head of UNODC to single out a particular group of NGOs and caricature our position in this way. I would ask you to read some of our materials on our web site and consider anew whether we are indeed “pro drug”. My guess is that your use of the phrase arises out of a misunderstanding of what we stand for, combined with what is commonly referred to as a false binary. We are indeed, strongly opposed to some of the positions held by those in the anti-drug movement. However, you then make the false assumption that we must therefore be “pro-drug”.
I wish to state categorically that we are not pro drug. We are neither pro nor anti drug, rather we are in favour of strong government regulation. In our collective experience it is unhelpful for us to position our organisation as being for or against the existence or use of drugs, whether they be licit or illicit. The UK Government is not pro alcohol and tobacco, just because it maintains support for their legally regulated sale.
We support and promote drug policies that are effective, just and humane; that support the UN’s three pillars – human development, human security and human rights. Transform, you, and indeed all those involved in the UN process share the common goals of reducing the harm caused by drugs (and bad drug policies) to individuals, communities and nation states. Given that this is the case, the most appropriate way to achieve that is to engage in meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders who take an evidence-based approach. Using pejorative and un-evidenced language, in suggesting that we are pro-drug, is partisan and inappropriate, coming from the head of the agency tasked with promoting inclusivity in the engagement of those in civil society in the drug policy making process. Since gaining ECOSOC consultative status, we have been made to feel singularly unwelcome at UN events where repeated slurs have been made on our work.
Lastly, portraying us negatively does nothing to promote our engagement in the UN process and gives a poor impression of the agency charged with facilitating civil society input at the UN.
We respectfully ask that you write to confirm that you will in future desist from using this kind of un-evidenced and pejorative language.
Should you wish to meet to discuss this further, I would be happy to do so.
I thank you for taking the time to consider this request.
Head of Policy and Communications
cc. Mr. Andrei Abramov, Chief, NGO Branch, ECOSOC
Simon Smith, United Kingdom Permanent Representative to the United Nations Organisations in Vienna
Michel Sidibe, Executive Director, UNAIDS
David Turner, Vienna NGO Committee
Alun Jones, Chief of Communications and Advocacy, UNODC
Here is Costa's response:
1 December 2009
Dear Mr Kushlick
I would like to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 6 October 2009, regarding our use of the term 'pro-drug'. I have taken note of your statement that your organisation is neither pro nor anti drugs, but rather in favour of strong government regulation and would give this my full consideration.
Antonio Maria Costa