Monday, November 19, 2007

UNODC ramps up the weird drug warrior rhetoric

Antonio Costa gave a speech in Spain last week that raised the bar for weird UNODC fire and brimstone rhetoric, featuring the familiar deployment of scientific terminology like ‘evil’ and ‘junkies’, along with less familiar appearances for Britney Spears, the word ‘fuck’, and unspecified ‘curses’.

Antonio Costa: picture from Costa's Corner on the UNODC website

He covers a lot of ground so it is well worth giving it a read; I’m interested to hear peoples thoughts. In the mean time here are a few highlights, with some commentary.

In his opening salvo Costa notes that:

“….the whole drug scene in Europe is actually biased in favour of cocaine, making it the drug of choice as depressants are progressively abandoned: heroin is consumed by people on the margins of society, loitering in parks, near underground stations, or congregating around grubby treatment centres.

…Cocaine has a different image. It has stylish names: the fair lady, the candid queen, the seductive sugar. It is white not dark; sniffed not injected; consumed in trendy discos not in cities' gutters; it is the mental fuel of society's winners, not the dope of losers.”

In these two sentences alone, there is a world of wrongness.

  • cocaine use is rising, no doubt, but if we are looking for the ‘drug of choice’ then surely alcohol, cannabis and nicotine should warrant a mention, given their use eclipses that of cocaine by a substantial margin.

  • Depressants are not being ‘progressively abandoned’ – heroin use may have leveled off in the last few years but it isn’t falling. Meanwhile alcohol, another depressant is showing no signs of waning popularity.

  • ‘grubby treatment centres’? Are they all grubby? What are you implying? With this one phrase he skillfully manages to be rude to 1000s of treatment workers across an entire continent.

  • I have never heard of cocaine referred to ‘the fair lady’, ‘candid queen’, or ‘seductive sugar’. Not once. Maybe something has been lost in translation, but ‘a gram of seductive sugar please’. Nope, sorry, that’s clearly completely made up. Who writes this stuff?

And there is something else missing from these sentences and indeed the entire speech: Any mention of crack.

Now crack cocaine is cocaine. It’s the same drug, it comes from the same plant, and has the same effect, albeit with a small molecular change (easily achieved with a microwave and some bicarbs) that allows it to be smoked, the effect being to speed up and intensify the cocaine hit. In the UK and in much of Europe the crack and heroin markets have largely merged, as have the using populations. The illicit heroin scene provided a ready made distribution network for crack and a ready market of potential problem users. Heroin and crack, as the staff of grubby treatment centers will tell you, is used in the same ‘city gutters’, by the same ‘losers’ as heroin. And increasingly it is injected too, not infrequently, mixed with heroin. It may not fit in with the rather strange class war theme of Costa's speech, but it is a peculiar oversight.

Costa then, in reference to the powder cocaine using 'white collar' 'winners', talks about Europe’s cocaine junkies’. Now, firstly, it is simply not appropriate for the head of the UNODC to be using pejorative terms such as ‘junkies’. It’s not a technical term, it’s not helpful in this context, and it reinforces stereotypes and fosters social exclusion.

The second thing is that unlike crack, most powder cocaine use is not characterised by addiction or chaotic use. Of course there are some problem users (often also problem drinkers) and some compulsive, addictive patterns of use, but they represent the small minority, with crack use representing the majority of cocaine related problematic use. Powder cocaine is associated with health risks undoubtedly but there is no inevitability about addiction and most users are able to make rational decisions, using occasionally, moderately and not causing significant problems to themselves.

After telling us about the dangers of cocaine to the user Costa then moves onto demonstrate how European cocaine use causes harm ‘further a field’. This is classic prohibitionist sophistry, blaming a range of problems in producer and transit countries on the drug users rather than the policy of prohibition that creates the illegal markets in the first place. There’s a whole list of these secondary harms provided, which reads like a roll call of prohibtion's negative consequences:

‘They [European cocaine users] destroy nature in coca growing countries, as pristine forests are replaced by coca plantations.’

True up to a point, but the problem has historically been made much worse by Andean eradication programmes, wholeheartedly endorsed by the UN drug agencies, which have sprayed with toxic chemicals across many millions of acres without any discernible impact on production – which just moves elsewhere. The effect has been to multiply the environmental damage and deforestation related to coca cultivation. Were it legally produced it would still potentially be an issue (although there’s no reason to think it would still be produced predominantly in the same regions) but no more so that deforestation for soya, meat, or bio fuel production.

“They endanger lives by financing terrorism - as occurred in the deadly Madrid bombings where drugs (hashish) were swapped for explosives.”

Odd to use an example of hashish to illustrate his point on cocaine but regardless, legal drug production, including legal cocaine production (which does go on you may be interested to learn) is not funding terrorism anywhere, and never has. Nor does the 50% of global poppy production which is entirely legally produced for the medical opiates market. The other 50% unfortunately…

“They condemn Colombia to a fate of FARC insurgency, urban violence and environmental degradation.”

Again – these problems are created directly by prohibition (and the illicit profit opportunities it creates) as overseen, enforced and evangelized by the UNODC.

Costa then goes on to describe in some detail why West Africa has become the new transit route for Europe-bound illicit cocaine, and all the problems this is now causing the region. Again it is not only an extraordinary indictment of the systematic failure of the UN drug control apparatus and the system of global prohibition he oversees, but worse, it is the direct result of that system.

There’s a terrible irony in speeches such as this, when these apocalyptic tales of the prohibition’s spectacular failure are delivered by those apparently oblivious to the fact that they are responsible for them. Costa talks of the specter of drug abuse in Africa as another ‘European curse on a continent already so dramatically damaged by centuries of colonialism, exploitation, slavery and racism.’ Prohibition should be added to the list. 'Orwellian' is an overused term perhaps, but appropriate here I suggest. The UNODC is an important entity and you want to engage with them on a meaningful level to discuss policy options. But they really don't make it easy with this sort of thing which makes them look increasingly like some sort of 'ministry of drug truth' straight out of 1984.

Following this Costa flows seamlessly into some peculiar and embarrassing pop-cultural analysis. Seemingly written by someone else, it is a media-friendly list of celebrities, divided into the good and bad depending on whether they have renounced drugs or not after they’re respective ‘my drugs hell’ revelations. We learn first that:

‘Nobody makes movies about blood coke.’

Er, yes they do. From Scarface, to Traffic, Maria full of grace, and Blow, through to the brand new American Gangster, there are loads of films about cocaine related misery and crime. But I digress. Next we learn that:

‘Worse than that: models and socialites who wouldn't dare to wear a tiger fur coat, show no qualms about flaunting their cocaine use in public. Look at Kate Moss who still receives lucrative contracts after she was photographed sniffing.’

Actually Moss, whilst a notorious fur wearer, has never flaunted her cocaine use in public. Clearly aware of her image she always denied using and was incredibly discreet, (never commenting on her use before or since) and was, if you cast your mind back, revealed by a secret-camera tabloid sting of her using in private.

Then, and perhaps most strangely of all, Costa quotes a new Britney Spears lyric: ‘Eat it! Lick it! Snort it! F*** it’ , which is apparently glamorising cocaine use. I wouldn’t normally use swear words in the blog, but if Costa is wheeling them out at the UN, I feel that gives me a bit of license. Now I’m happy to agree that entertainers glamorising drug use in their artistic output is pretty pathetic, especially when aimed at the youth market which it mostly is, and should be actively discouraged. But Britney is a strange example. Of the four activities Britney describes only one could be really be construed as relating to cocaine. Maybe the punctuation was wrong when Britney's lyric was reported and that she in fact said "Eat it! Lick it! Snort it? Fuck it." It was, in fact, an anti-cocaine message for her young fans telling them to "fuck" cocaine and diverting them to sweets and lollipops. I jest, but who knows. Not Costa I suspect.

It is perhaps the sort of weirdness we should expect when an older establishment figure (he is 67) is put in charge of a social policy arena largely concerned with an anti-establishment youth culture of which he has little comprehension. It all rather reminded me of watching the familiar spectacle of grannies trying to dance to hip-hop at weddings, just less funny.

And finally back to the beginning where Costa refers to cocaine use as a ‘curse’. We are used to drugs being described in biblical terms, it fits rather well with the crusading drug war metaphor with archaic terms such as ‘evil’, ‘scourge’ and ‘plague’ are regularly deployed. I'm not sure I have come across ‘curse’ before though. Wikipedia tells us that a ‘curse’ can ‘be said to result from a spell or prayer, imprecation or execration, or other imposition by magic or witchcraft, asking that a god, natural force, or spirit bring misfortune to someone’. I tend to think of things like Tutankhamen and the mummies tomb, rather than plant based stimulants, but there you go.

Wikipedia also describes a curse as ‘the effective action of some power, distinguished solely by the quality of adversity that it brings.’

Sounds a bit like prohibition to me.


Anonymous said...

The only explanation that comes to mind for Costa's apparent coining of new slang for cocaine is that he's been talking to Chris Morris.

Apart from this novelty, I was amused by the claim that so far Africa has never had a drug problem.

Anonymous said...

Further inappropriate, hyperbolic language from Costa

"If border control is not improved Afghanistan's neighbors will be hit by a tsunami of the most deadly drug"

Anti-corruption "climate change" in Africa

But here's a rare piece of reflection from Costa, connected to the point above
"While criminals and their cronies are reaping profits from drug processing and trafficking, farmers are bearing the brunt of opium eradication"