Monday, June 28, 2010

The Vienna Declaration: Experts highlight negative impact of drug war on HIV, call for decriminalisation

The criminalisation of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in
overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. A full policy reorientation is needed.

The Vienna Declaration is a statement seeking to improve community health and safety by calling for the incorporation of scientific evidence into illicit drug policies. We are inviting scientists, health practitioners and the public to endorse this document in order to bring these issues to the attention of governments and international agencies, and to illustrate that drug policy reform is a matter of urgent international significance. We also welcome organizational endorsements.

This is the official declaration of the XVIII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2010) to be held in Vienna, Austria from July 18th to 23rd. The declaration was drafted by a team of international experts and initiated by several of the world’s leading HIV and drug policy scientific bodies: the International AIDS Society, the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP), and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS

The Declaration is now gathering signatures before its official launch at the XVIII International AIDS Conference, Vienna 2010. There will be a media launch event at the conference on July 20th (see here for details and press release) and a discussion event around the Declaration featuring Evan Wood from the ICSDP and other invited guests, in the Global Village Human Rights, Harm Reducation and Drug Policy Networking Zone on Wednesday July 21st at 2.15-3.15pm. The Drug Policy Networking Zone is co-organised by Transform and the International Drug Policy Consortium.

The full text of the declaration is copied below

To visit the Vienna Declaration website and register your support click here. The site contains background information, press information and comments from some of the Declaration's supporters, inclusing Michel Kazachkine is the Executive Director of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria.

Transform is pleased to have had a role in the production of the Declaration as a member of the writing committee, providing editorial input and feedback on early drafts.


The criminalisation of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in
overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. A full policy reorientation is needed.

In response to the health and social harms of illegal drugs, a large international drug prohibition regime has been developed under the umbrella of the United Nations.1 Decades of research provide a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of the global “War on Drugs” and, as thousands of individuals gather in Vienna at the XVIII International AIDS Conference, the international scientific community calls for an acknowledgement of the limits and harms of drug prohibition, and for drug policy reform to remove barriers to effective HIV prevention, treatment and care.

The evidence that law enforcement has failed to prevent the availability of illegal drugs, in communities where there is demand, is now unambiguous.2, 3Over the last several decades, national and international drug surveillance systems have demonstrated a general pattern of falling drug prices and increasing drug purity—despite massive investments in drug law enforcement.3,4

Furthermore, there is no evidence that increasing the ferocity of law enforcement meaningfully reduces the prevalence of drug use.5 The data also clearly demonstrate that the number of countries in which people inject illegal drugs is growing, with women and children becoming increasingly affected.6 Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, injection drug use accounts for approximately one in three new cases of HIV.7, 8 In some areas where HIV is spreading most rapidly, such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia, HIV prevalence can be as high as 70% among people who inject drugs, and in some areas more than 80% of all HIV cases are among this group.8

In the context of overwhelming evidence that drug law enforcement has failed to achieve its stated objectives, it is important that its harmful consequences be acknowledged and addressed. These consequences include but are not limited to:

  • HIV epidemics fuelled by the criminalisation of people who use illicit drugs and by prohibitions on the provision of sterile needles and opioid substitution treatment.9, 10
  • HIV outbreaks among incarcerated and institutionalised drug users as a result of punitive laws and policies and a lack of HIV prevention services in these settings.11-13
  • The undermining of public health systems when law enforcement drives drug users away from prevention and care services and into environments where the risk of infectious disease transmission (e.g., HIV, hepatitis C & B, and tuberculosis) and other harms is increased.14-16
  • A crisis in criminal justice systems as a result of record incarceration rates in a number of nations.17, 18 This has negatively affected the social functioning of entire communities. While racial disparities in incarceration rates for drug offences are evident in countries all over the world, the impact has been particularly severe in the US, where approximately one in nine African-American males in the age group 20 to 34 is incarcerated on any given day, primarily as a result of drug law enforcement.19
  • Stigma towards people who use illicit drugs, which reinforces the political popularity of criminalising drug users and undermines HIV prevention and other health promotion efforts.20, 21
  • Severe human rights violations, including torture, forced labour, inhuman and degrading treatment, and execution of drug offenders in a number of countries.22, 23
  • A massive illicit market worth an estimated annual value of US$320 billion.4 These profits remain entirely outside the control of government. They fuel crime, violence and corruption in countless urban communities and have destabilised entire countries, such as Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan.4
  • Billions of tax dollars wasted on a “War on Drugs” approach to drug control that does not achieve its stated objectives and, instead, directly or indirectly contributes to the above harms.24

Unfortunately, evidence of the failure of drug prohibition to achieve its stated goals, as well as the severe negative consequences of these policies, is often denied by those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo.25This has created confusion among the public and has cost countless lives. Governments and international organisations have ethical and legal obligations to respond to this crisis and must seek to enact alternative evidence-based strategies that can effectively reduce the harms of drugs without creating harms of their own. We, the undersigned, call on governments and international organisations, including the United Nations, to:

  • Undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies.
  • Implement and evaluate a science-based public health approach to address the individual and community harms stemming from illicit drug use.
  • Decriminalise drug users, scale up evidence-based drug dependence treatment options and abolish ineffective compulsory drug treatment centres that violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.26
  • Unequivocally endorse and scale up funding for the implementation of the comprehensive package of HIV interventions spelled out in the WHO, UNODC and UNAIDS Target Setting Guide.27
  • Meaningfully involve members of the affected community in developing, monitoring and implementing services and policies that affect their lives.

We further call upon the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to urgently implement measures to ensure that the United Nations system—including the International Narcotics Control Board—speaks with one voice to support the decriminalisation of drug users and the implementation of evidence-based approaches to drug control.28

Basing drug policies on scientific evidence will not eliminate drug use or the problems stemming from drug injecting. However, reorienting drug policies towards evidence-based approaches that respect, protect and fulfil human rights has the potential to reduce harms deriving from current policies and would allow for the redirection of the vast financial resources towards where they are needed most: implementing and evaluating evidence-based prevention, regulatory, treatment and harm reduction interventions.

1. William B McAllister. Drug diplomacy in the twentieth century: an international history. Routledge, New York, 2000.
2. Reuter P. Ten years after the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS): assessing drug problems, policies and reform proposals. Addiction 2009;104:510-7.
3. United States Office of National Drug Control Policy. The Price and Purity of Illicit Drugs: 1981 through the Second Quarter of 2003. Executive Office of the President;
Washington, DC, 2004.
4. World Drug Report 2005. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; 2005.
5. Degenhardt L, Chiu W-T, Sampson N, et al. Toward a global view of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and cocaine use: Findings from the WHO World Mental Health Surveys.
PLOS Medicine 2008;5:1053-67.
6. Mathers BM, Degenhardt L, Phillips B, et al. Global epidemiology of injecting drug use and HIV among people who inject drugs: A systematic review. Lancet
7. Wolfe D, Malinowska-Sempruch K. Illicit drug policies and the global HIV epidemic: Effects of UN and national government approaches. New York: Open Society
Institute; 2004.
8. 2008 Report on the global AIDS epidemic. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS; Geneva, 2008.
9. Lurie P, Drucker E. An opportunity lost: HIV infections associated with lack of a national needle-exchange programme in the USA. Lancet 1997;349:604.
10. Rhodes T, Lowndes C, Judd A, et al. Explosive spread and high prevalence of HIV infection among injecting drug users in Togliatti City, Russia. AIDS 2002;16:F25.
11. Taylor A, Goldberg D, Emslie J, et al. Outbreak of HIV infection in a Scottish prison. British Medical Journal 1995;310:289.
12. Sarang A, Rhodes T, Platt L, et al. Drug injecting and syringe use in the HIV risk environment of Russian penitentiary institutions: qualitative study. Addiction
13. Jurgens R, Ball A, Verster A. Interventions to reduce HIV transmission related to injecting drug use in prison. Lancet Infectious Disease 2009;9:57-66.
14. Davis C, Burris S, Metzger D, Becher J, Lynch K. Effects of an intensive street-level police intervention on syringe exchange program utilization: Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania. American Journal of Public Health 2005;95:233.
15. Bluthenthal RN, Kral AH, Lorvick J, Watters JK. Impact of law enforcement on syringe exchange programs: A look at Oakland and San Francisco. Medical Anthropology
16. Rhodes T, Mikhailova L, Sarang A, et al. Situational factors influencing drug injecting, risk reduction and syringe exchange in Togliatti City, Russian Federation: a
qualitative study of micro risk environment. Social Science & Medicine 2003;57:39.
17. Fellner J, Vinck P. Targeting blacks: Drug law enforcement and race in the United States. New York: Human Rights Watch; 2008.
18. Drucker E. Population impact under New York's Rockefeller drug laws: An analysis of life years lost. Journal of Urban Health 2002;79:434-44.
19. Warren J, Gelb A, Horowitz J, Riordan J. One in 100: Behind bars in America 2008. The Pew Center on the States Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts 2008.
20. Rhodes T, Singer M, Bourgois P, Friedman SR, Strathdee SA. The social structural production of HIV risk among injecting drug users. Social Science & Medicine 2005;61:1026.
21. Ahern J, Stuber J, Galea S. Stigma, discrimination and the health of illicit drug users. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 2007;88:188.
22. Elliott R, Csete J, Palepu A, Kerr T. Reason and rights in global drug control policy. Canadian Medical Association Journal 2005;172:655-6.
23. Edwards G, Babor T, Darke S, et al. Drug trafficking: time to abolish the death penalty. Addiction 2009;104:3.
24. The National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (2001). Shoveling up: The impact of substance abuse on State budgets.

25. Wood E, Montaner JS, Kerr T. Illicit drug addiction, infectious disease spread, and the need for an evidence-based response. Lancet Infectious Diseases 2008;8:142-3.
26. Klag S, O'Callaghan F, Creed P. The use of legal coercion in the treatment of substance abusers: An overview and critical analysis of thirty years of research. Substance Use & Misuse 2005;40:1777.
27. WHO, UNODC, UNAIDS 2009. Technical Guide for countries to set targets for universal access to HIV prevention, treatment and care for injection drug users.

28. Wood E, Kerr T. Could a United Nations organisation lead to a worsening of drug-related harms? Drug and Alcohol Review 2010;29:99-100.

Great new ICSDP video explaining the costs of the drug war

A video for anyone who wants to better understand the failures of prohibition and learn more about alternatives that have proven to be more cost-effective, safe, and humane.

Brought to you by the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy -- where science, not ideology, drives illicit drug policy.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Home Office internal document reveals bunker mentality of secrecy and suppression

23.00 update: this story has now been picked up by PA news: Ministers 'covered up drugs report'
and is also discussed on BBC Home Affairs correspondent Mark Easton's blog: Critical public interest (see update below)

 30.06.10 update: complete memo now available on the Transform website in original Word doc format

An internal Home Office memo, accidentally leaked to the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum (see his blog here), today exposes a culture of playing fast and loose with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests that might expose Government policy to criticism. The fifteen-page document demonstrates in detail how officials at the Home Office discussed withholding a Home Office commissioned value for money study (of the UK drug strategy) from Transform because of fears of bad press for its much vaunted drug policy. The epic 3 year saga of how we finally obtained the VFM study is detailed here. The internal document was inadvertently sent to Rosenbaum (the deleted portions were still visible) along with a letter that the Home Office sent him as a part of an unconnected FOI request. It has allowed for a brief peep behind the curtain of obfuscation and spin that has characterised so many of our dealings with the Home Office.

For reference the complete (inadvertently) leaked memo is on the Transform website here -unaltered in original Word document format.

In the memo, which was copied to the Home Secretary and the Permanent Secretary, in Annex D under the heading ‘Potential issues arising from the Report’, it says:

“The release of the report entails the risk of Transform, or other supporters of legalisation, using information from the report to criticise the Government’s drug policy, or to support their call for the legalisation of drugs and the introduction of a regulated system of supply. These risks should be considered in reaching a decision on whether to release the report, as recommended.”
This is an extraordinary comment to write in a document like this as it so blatantly goes against the spirit of FOI. But more importantly demonstrates that the Home Office was not applying the guidelines that say that all FOI requests should be dealt with 'blind'. (i.e. not taking into account who has made the request.) . In this context it is particularly odd, indeed faintly ridiculous that the Home Office in response to Rosenbaum state that 'The Freedom of Information Act is applicant blind. Regardless of who the applicant is, all requests for information are assessed and answered in the same manner' - when this is obviously not the case as evidenced by the actual document they were being asked about. Bizarre. (See update below).

A document is either exempt under the Act, or it is not. It is not for civil servants to make decisions about releasing information based upon its potential to provide ammunition for those challenging Government doctrine or policy. That is not and should not be the function of the Freedom of Information Act.

The document even contained worked up reactive media positions, should the report eventually be released and recieve media attention. You have to ask: Shouldn't they be developing effective policy, rather than suppressing evidence, censoring criticism and working up reactive press soundbites?

This is all reminiscent of the Government’s handling of the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit Drugs Report released in July 2005.

One of the series of entirely spurious reasons originally given for withholding the report (see here for details of this and the various others) was that the National Audit Office was soon to realease a review of drug strategy value for money and that release of the report at the same time  
“risks misinterpretation of the findings of the [NAO] report”
As the Economist coverage of this development noted (‘Inconvenient Truths’ Dec 3rd 09):
 ‘This is believed to be the first time that a public body has openly refused to release information in order to manage the news better’
Ironically the NAO report and Public Accounts Committee report that followed it berated the Home Office for having nothing approaching an effective drug strategy evaluation framework, which was one of the key points the VFM review was making in the first place.

One thing that this memo will hopefully do, is to bring the issue of drug policy's value for money to the attention of the coalition Government, and we have long suggested that the very obvious evidence vaccum could begin to be filled by conducting an Impact Assessment of current enforcement policy and related legislation.

This ought to be a Government interested in Impact Assessment. In the current economic climate the Government's mantra is: 'What should we cut? You decide.' Well, what about at least costing out the war on drugs and comparing it with alternatives.

Let's not forget that David Cameron called on the UK Government to initiate 'a discussion within the [UN] Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma' as a back bench member of the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2001/2. Or that Nick Clegg's Lib Dem's Election Manifesto all but called for decriminalisation of personal use. Or indeed that Alan Duncan is the first member of Government to have written a book with a chapter advocating in favour of legalisation.

Transform will be making official complaints to the relevant parliamentary bodies, not only to bring pressure to bear on those mishandling FOI requests with regard to drug policy, but also to encourage better FOI practice more generally for the future. There is a bigger issue here that has nothing to do with drug policy or Transform.

That said, if we are to move towards a more effective drug policy this culture of secrecy and suppression of  evidence must end. The focus must shift from the futile defence of a broken and failed policy paradigm, to developing effective, just and humane alternatives. This can only be done in an atmosphere of openness and with a commitment to what works (for the public that is), not defending to the last what so obviously does not.

Lastly, we are aware of another value for money document that has still not been released. Maybe releasing this and other relevant research would help draw a line under this depressing episode and signify a fesh start under the new Government, as well as obviously helping inform a mature policy debate based on evidence of effectiveness. That's not too much to ask is it?

Update 26.06.10  Mark Easton's blog quotes The Information Commissioner who asked about the revelations reposnded that:
"Requests should not be refused simply on the grounds that disclosing the information would reveal gaps in the evidence base for a policy. There is a public interest in openness and transparency...

"The fact that the information may not reflect well on the public authority in question is not in itself a reason for it to be withheld."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Call to Action: Support Global Drug Policy Reform on World Drug Day, 26 June 2010

The following statement has been prepared by the Open Society Institute Global Drug Policy Program to mark this years UN World Drugs Day. It is available in pdf in a number of languages from the GDPP website here. Supporters are copied below.

I. The War on Drugs has become a War on People

As the United Nations brings worldwide attention to problems related to illicit drugs, we call for a new approach.

In too many countries, the “war on drugs” has become a war on people. Millions of non-violent drug users face abuse and imprisonment, while they have no access to proper healthcare or effective treatment. Low-level traders and producers receive sentences disproportionate to their crimes and languish in prisons around the globe. Millions more face crop destruction and police harassment as they struggle to make ends meet, with few alternatives as the global economy falters. Meanwhile, the HIV epidemic gains pace.

II. Five Actions Today

After decades of policies that have failed to make our societies safer or healthier, and given overwhelming evidence which shows that criminalizing drugs is both counterproductive and highly destructive, we call on governments to:

  1. Focus on reducing the harms related to drug trade and use, such as making needle and syringe exchange programs widely available.
  2. Decriminalize the possession of drugs for personal use.
  3. Ensure that evidence-based treatments for pain and addiction are widely available, including methadone and buprenorphine.
  4. Treat supporting farmers in moving away from coca or poppy cultivation as a development issue.
  5. Comply fully with human rights obligations in any drug control measure, ensuring proportionality of penalties, abolishing the death penalty, and avoiding non-evidence-based forms of treatment.

III. Driving Away Drug Users Creates Public Health Disasters

Nearly three decades into the global HIV epidemic, we reiterate that driving people who use drugs underground only makes the transmission of HIV and hepatitis more likely. The number of HIV infections due to injecting drug use is rising steadily. In parts of Eastern Europe and South-East Asia, this figure reaches 80%.

As the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has said, “Forcing drug users to hide and denying them access to life-saving treatment and prevention services is creating a public health disaster. This happens even though the evidence from scientific and medical research on best practices and cost benefit analyses is overwhelmingly in favour of harm reduction programming....The message is clear. It is time to be guided by light of science, not by the darkness of ignorance and fear.”

I Indeed, rather than a security-focused approach that costs roughly $100 billion per year worldwide, we need to look at this first and foremost through the lens of public health. In the blind effort to rid the world of drugs, 80% of cancer patients worldwide are denied access to opiate-based pain relief.

IV. Adopt a Humane Approach

A humane, compassionate approach to drug use based on harm reduction principles and respect for human rights is the most effective way to limit the negative impact of drug use, trade, and production. Scientific and medical research on best practices and cost benefit analyses overwhelmingly favors harm reduction programs, including needle exchange, drug substitution therapy, and condom distribution. We applaud countries who have already taken steps in this direction. Recently, both Germany and Switzerland have voted to make medical heroin available for chronically dependent opiate users and the new U.S. administration has come out in support of needle exchange. Ecuador pardoned thousands of drug ‘mules’ imprisoned with disproportionate sentences and 80 Argentinean judges made a public call to reform their country’s drug laws.

In order to stop the spiral of drug-related violence and disease intensifying across the globe, more countries must follow suit.

This Call to Action is supported by:

International Organizations

President Cardoso, Co-chair, Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy
Michel Kazatchkine, Executive Director, Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria
Massimo Barra, Vice-President, Standing Commission of Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement
Kieran Daly, Executive Director, International Council of AIDS Service Organizations
Balazs Denes, Executive Director, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union
Gregg Gonzalves, International Treatment Preparedness Coalition
Martin Jelsma, Drugs and Democracy program, Transnational Institute
Craig McClure, Executive Director, International AIDS Society
Dr. Robert Newman, International Center for Advancement of Addiction Treatment
Professor Gerry Stimson, Executive Director, International Harm Reduction Association
Raminta Stuikyte, Director, Eurasian Harm Reduction Network
Carmen Tarrades, International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS
Mike Trace, Chairman, International Drug Policy Consortium
Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch and Daniel Wolfe, Open Society Institute

National Organizations

Zackie Ahmat, Deputy General-Secretary, Treatment Action Campaign, South Africa
Dr.Apinun Aramrattana, MD, PhD, Department of Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Chiang Mai University, Thailand
Patrizia Carrieri PhD, Researcher, French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM), France
Rubem César Fernandes, Director, Viva Rio, Brazil
Jacek Charmast, Chairman, Polish Drug Policy Network, Poland
Professor John Nicholas Crofts, Nossal Institute for Global Health, University of Melbourne, Australia
Aleksander Ciechanowicz, Director General, Humanitarian Action, St Petersburg Fund for Medical and Social Programs, Russia
Dr. Marcus Day DSc, Director, Caribbean Drug & Alcohol Research Institute, Saint Lucia
Clement Edwards, Director, Substance Abuse Advisory Council Secretariat of Saint Lucia
Richard Elliott, Executive Director, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Canada
Professor Pat O'Hare, Director, HIT, United Kingdom
Hakima Himmich, Director, Association de Lutte Contre le SIDA, Morocco
Professor Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman, President, Malaysian AIDS Council, Malaysia
Sandra Kanck, Australian Parliamentary Group on Drug Law Reform, Australia
Grażyna Konieczny, Chairperson, Social AIDS Committee, Poland
Professor Joep M.A. Lange, Center for Poverty-related Communicable Diseases, Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Prem K Limbu, President, National Users’ Network, Nepal
Joesph Meharris, Manager, d'Oasis Drop in Centre, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
Professor Daniel Mejia, Economics Department, University of the Andes, Colombia
Phumi Mtetwa, Executive Director, Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, South Africa
Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director, Drug Policy Alliance, United States
Professor Aimé Charles Nicolas, University Hospital of Fort de France, Martinique
Professor Wiktor Osiatyński, Poland
Dr. Cristina Pimenta, Executive Director, Brazilian Interdisciplinary AIDS Association, Brazil
Professor Carla Rossi, Director, Centre for Biostatistics and Bioinformatics of the University of Rome Tor Vergata, Italy
Sebastian Saville, Executive Director, Release, United Kingdom
Joel Simpson, Founding Co-Chairperson, Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, Guyana
Paisan Suwannawong, Director, Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group, Thailand
Professor Pierre de Vos, Department of Public Law and Jurisprudence, Law Faculty, University of Western Cape, South Africa
Professor Daniel Tarantola, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of New South Wales, Australia/France
Dr. Alex Wodak, President, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Australia
Wan Yanhai, Director, Beijing Aizhixing Institute, China

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Economist steps up public debate on drug legalisation

As part of its latest promotional campaign The Economist magazine has launched a series of  'where do you stand?' debates built around a billboard poster campaign outlining opposing views on a series of contentious issues. One of the issues they have chosen is whether drugs should be legalised and regulated, perhaps unsuprising given their prominent interest in this debate, and indeed support for the reform position (see below) over the past few years.

Economist drug debate billboards: click to see full size*

The campaign is supported by  series of twitter debates - the drug legalisation debate taking place tonight at 6pm (see @TheEconomist for details or follw the #WhereDoYouStand hashtag) and a facebook page where you can even comment with more than 140 characters, if not a fan of new media concision.

Related blogs:




*Thanks to Emily Crick for the photo

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Suspiciously inflated drug seizure 'street value' estimates (again)

The BBC reports today, in a news piece titled 'Two tonnes of cocaine seized in The Gambia' , that:

 'At least two tonnes of cocaine with a street value estimated at $1bn has been seized in The Gambia, bound for Europe.'

Similar reports have run in number of other outlets including AFP (Billion Dollar cocaine seizure in Gambia), Reuters , the Daily Mail, and numerous others. There is a  discrepancy in the reporting in the quantity seized,  which varies from 2 to 2.5 tonnes, but all report the 1 billion dollar street value estimate, with the exception of PA that does not mention any street value figure, and also puts the size of the seizure at 2100 kg.

It is not clear from the piece who made this estimate of street value - whether it was the Gambian authorities, the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (who were involved in the operation), although the AFP report suggests the latter.

Either way it immediately rang alarm bells; the number not only seems conveniently rounded - one of those dramatic sounding media-friendly numbers that we see so often in drug stories (see here and here for example) - but also it was suspiciously big. 

A couple of quick sums. Two tonnes of cocaine amounts to 2 million grams. To get a street value of $1 billion dollars would mean that each pure gram was selling for $500, or £344 at current exchange rates. That seems somewhat  high - given that UK 2009 cocaine prices are nearer £40 a gram, which would give a total street value of £80 million or $116 million.

But this would not account for the fact that the street drug is heavily cut. If we factor in lower end average purity levels of 25% (itself a SOCA stat) this would give you a figure $464million.

Even if we go with the higher 2.5 tonne figure (the 2.1 seems more likely, but anyway)- this would still take the street value to $580million - which remains some distance from 1 billion. Having exhausted all the available tricks: street value (at least x 10), purity (x4), convert to US dollars - even though its for sale in Europe (x 1.2), I'm still struggling to see how they could push the figure up to a juicy billion. Maybe the fact most 'grams' sold are a little under could nudge it up by 50 million or so, but the only way I can see they could have managed it is to base calculations on  a cherry picked example of fantastically expensive/rubbish cocaine from somewhere in Europe. Who knows? (but we are interested to hear btw, should those concerned care to illuminate us).

These sorts of (all too familiar) boastful statistical shenanigans can be seen to reflect the wider malaise in drug interdiction. In the face of their futile battle against an undefeatable enemy, there is a desperate need for enforcement agencies to demonstrate success, especially when the spending axe is hovering. Even if the street values are shown to be completely correct - there is still the relentless trumpeting of seizures to consider in the light of the rarely mentioned but relentless increases in availability and use that accompany them.

Whilst demand for cocaine remains, and cocaine remains prohibited, organised crime will always find away to exploit the lucrative opportunity that this creates. They are an endlessly flexible, innovative and ruthless enemy. Localised 'success' will only ever shift transit routes elsewhere - as the shift from Caribbean to West African transhipment routes demonstrates. These seizures are Pyrrhic victories; the enforcers are inadvertently part the problem they are simultaneously trying to stamp out.

There is a way to put the criminal drug traffickers out of business for good, but the key players in international drug control don't want to talk about it.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

'War on drugs' behind endless misery

The commentary reproduced below
by Evan Wood  of the recently established International Centre for Science in Drug Policy was originally  published today on

'War on drugs' behind endless misery

The news of intense drug-related violence out of Jamaica is shocking and dreadful but entirely predictable. Wherever the war on drugs touches down, death and destruction result. A recent target is Kingston, Jamaica. 

When law enforcement attempted to smoke out Christopher "Dudus" Coke, wanted in the U.S. for conspiracy to distribute marijuana and cocaine and to traffic in firearms, scores of people died in the urban warfare. The death toll reached 73 civilians as Jamaicans were caught in the crossfire between police, soldiers and armed thugs.

Rival drug gangs used the confusion to eliminate their enemies and further ratchet up the violence. Coke has since agreed to surrender to officials in New York, because he "feels it is in his best interest to be taken to the U.S. rather than to a Jamaican jail," sources told the Jamaican Observer, but not before scores of people died.

Given that the scenes of violence between rival drug gangs are so common, people often fail to consider the factors that fuel this violence. The reality is that Jamaicans are just the latest victims in a misguided and expensive war that has taken countless thousands of lives, from the streets of New York to the slums and shantytowns of Colombia, Mexico and other third-world nations.  When law enforcement attempted to smoke out Christopher "Dudus" Coke ... scores of people died in the urban warfare.

In more than four decades since former U.S. President Nixon first declared America's "war on drugs," the battles against spreading disease, increasing violence and the ongoing destruction of families and neighborhoods have been lost.

Mexico, a country all too familiar with violence as a way of life, is today a stark example of how crackdowns on drug cartels by American and local law enforcement agencies have utterly failed.

The horrible drug-related violence in Mexico was intensified by President Felipe Calderón, with strong U.S. support. This crackdown has resulted in about 23,000 drug-related deaths across the country since 2006. The bloodiest war has been fought in Juárez, a besieged city of 1.3 million on the U.S. border, where 5,100 people have been killed since 2008.

The global drug war has created a massive illicit market with an estimated annual value of $320 billion. In April, the newly created International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, of which I am founder, released a review of every English-language study to examine the link between drug law enforcement and violence.

The review clearly demonstrates that the astronomical profits created by drug prohibition drive organized crime and its related violence. Several studies included in the report suggested that law enforcement's removal of key players from the drug trade, such as Christopher Coke, only creates power vacuums that lead to violent and deadly competition. Many victims are not involved in the drug trade, as today's civilian deaths in Mexico, the U.S. and Kingston's slums illustrate.

The global drug war has created a massive illicit market with an estimated annual value of $320 billion.

The war on drugs has generated a lucrative, cash-rich industry that has -- not surprisingly -- lured poverty-stricken participants from throughout the impoverished third world. In West Africa, entire countries, such as Guinea-Bissau, are at risk of becoming "narco-states" as Colombian cocaine traffickers employ West African trade routes to distribute cocaine into destination markets in Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

Estimates now suggest that 27 percent of all cocaine destined for Europe is transited through West Africa and is worth more than $1.8 billion annually wholesale -- and as much as 10 times that amount at the retail level. Illicit drugs are big business, with the influence and global reach that goes along the ability to create widespread wealth.

Another conclusion of the review was the clear evidence that drug law enforcement has failed to reduce the availability of illegal drugs.

From a scientific perspective, we must accept that law enforcement will never meaningfully reduce the flow of drugs. Economists know that the drug seizures we see over and over again as part of police photo ops have the perverse effect of making it that much more profitable for someone else to sell drugs. The laws of supply and demand have simply overwhelmed police efforts. With young people reporting that obtaining illicit drugs is easier than getting alcohol or tobacco, the situation could not get much worse.

Strong scientific evidence points to the effectiveness of alternative regulatory models established in Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland to counter the disastrous consequences of illicit drug use and drug policies.

The Cato Institute, a respected U.S. think tank, has released a report on alternative drug policies. Several years ago, Portugal parted ways with the U.S. and decriminalized all drugs so that resources could focus on prevention and treatment of drug use. The report shows Portugal's policies have dramatically reduced HIV rates as drug addiction has been viewed as a health, rather than criminal justice, problem. In addition, Portugal now has the lowest rates of marijuana use in the European Union, with experts suggesting that the health focus has taken some of the glamour out of illegal drugs.

Similarly, the de facto regulation of marijuana in the Netherlands and distribution through licensed coffee shops generates tax revenue for the country rather than profits for organized crime. Interestingly, rates of marijuana use in the Netherlands remain far lower than those in the U.S. Consider this against the backdrop of the mayhem in Mexico, much of which is driven by fighting to control the marijuana export industry.

The American "get tough" approach, although politically popular in certain circles, has failed to achieve its intended objectives: The supply of illicit drugs has increased, the costs of illicit drugs have dropped, and drug purity has risen. The mounting bloodshed in Mexico and the recent mayhem in Jamaica clearly demonstrate that the U.S. is exporting violence, breaking up families and increasing the taxpayer burden to help fight these fruitless battles.

Americans themselves are suffering deeply from these misguided policies. It's time to just say no to the war on drugs and to implement science-based alternative policy models that are proving effective in other parts of the world.

Evan Wood is the founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy; the director of the Urban Health Program at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and associate professor in the Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Evan Wood.