Thursday, March 24, 2011

Joint Statement Against the Death Penalty at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs

The statement copied below - calling for an end to the illegal use of the death penalty for drug offences was read out by Eka Iakobishvili (Human Rights analyst for the International Harm Reduction Association) as an NGO representative (via the Vienna NGO committee on drugs) at yesterday's pleanry session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

Such a call should be relatively uncontroversial at a UN gathering - the General Assembly has called for a moratorium on all use of the death penalty, and the UNODC has recently (it should be noted - following concerted NGO pressure) made a clear statement opposing the use of the death penalty. In a 2010 paper by the previous Executive Director of the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, titled 'Drug control, crime prevention and criminal justice: a human rights perspective - Note by the Executive Director' (para 25/26) the UNODC position was laid out (bold emphasis added):

"The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifies that in countries which have not abolished the death penalty, the sentence of death may be imposed only for the “most serious crimes”. The concept of “most serious crimes” is limited to those where it can be shown that there was an intention to kill which resulted in the loss of life. The weight of opinion indicates that drug offences (such as possession and trafficking) and those of a purely economic nature do not meet this threshold. Moreover, States that have abolished the death penalty are prohibited to extradite any person to another country where he or she might face capital punishment."

"Despite such prohibitions, a considerable number of the 47 retentionist States that continue to use capital punishment have carried out executions for drug offences in recent years. In some of these countries, drug offenders constitute a significant proportion of total executions As an entity of the United Nations system, UNODC advocates the abolition of the death penalty and calls upon Member States to follow international standards concerning prohibition of the death penalty for offences of a drug-related or purely economic nature.

However, as IHRA have demonstrated with their groundbreaking death penalty publications, the illegal use of the death penalty for drug offences remains widespread, with an estimated 1000+ such executions taking place annually, some even resulting from arrests made under UNODC funded enforcement projects.

The plenary statement (endorsed by Transform) as read:
Date: 24 March 2011

Agenda Item No. 7: World Situation with Regard to Drug Trafficking

"Thank you, Mr Chairman. This statement is made on behalf of:

  • The International Harm Reduction Association
  • The International Network of People Who Use Drugs
  • Penal Reform International
  • Human Rights Watch
  • The International Drug Policy Consortium
  • The German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
  • The Open Society Foundations Drug Policy Programme
  • Reprieve
  • Transform Drug Policy Foundation
  • The Quaker Council for European Affairs
  • and 20 other non-governmental organisations

We are grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important agenda item.

We heard yesterday from UNODC of the seizures of illicit substances made in many parts of the world. While looking at the statistics on tonnes and kilos, we must also recognise the human face of such seizures.

We must consider the penalties that will be applied to those who are arrested and prosecuted. This is not to excuse criminality – but nor can we excuse the taking of human life for any crime.

The death penalty for drug offences is a violation of international law. This is clear. Yet 32 jurisdictions retain this excessive and cruel punishment. The International Harm Reduction Association has identified hundreds of executions annually for drug-related offences but believes that as many as one thousand people may be executed for drug offences each year when states that keep their death penalty statistics a secret are counted.

The justification for this is usually deterrence. This is a faulty argument that has been presented many times over, and for a range of crimes.

While nobody should be executed for any offence, the vast majority of those known to be sentenced to die for drugs are not kingpins or major traffickers. They are carriers. Very often involvement in this aspect of the drug trade is driven by poverty, drug dependence and a lack of options. To kill these people is cruel in the extreme.

Our call is brief. All States must cease the application of the death penalty for drug offences, and, indeed, for all offences, and immediately institute a moratorium to spare the lives of those on death row."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Press Release: Count the Costs project is launched at UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs

Fifty Years of the War on Drugs: Time to Count the Costs and Explore the Alternatives

The War on Drugs - Count the Costs global campaign will be launched by NGOs from around the world at a side-event at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna:

When: Wednesday 23 March, 13.15 – 14.45

Where: Mozart Room, Vienna International Conference Centre, Vienna

Speakers will outline the many costs of the war on drugs, and the aims of the campaign, to an audience of international policy makers, NGO representatives, and media. See the new project website here: for more details

The War on Drugs: Count the Costs campaign will bring together interested parties from around the world, including NGOs, policy makers and others whose work is negatively impacted by international drug enforcement. Together they will call on governments and international agencies to meaningfully evaluate the unintended consequences of the war on drugs and explore evidence-based alternatives. The results of this campaign will be presented to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in 2012. Here is the full text of the call:

The War on Drugs - Count the Costs and Explore the Alternatives

"The global 'war on drugs' has been fought for 50 years, without preventing the long-term trend of increasing drug supply and use. Beyond this failure, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has also identified the many serious ‘unintended negative consequences’ of the drug war. These costs result not from drug use itself, but from choosing a punitive enforcement-led approach that, by its nature, places control of the trade in the hands of organised crime, and criminalises many users. In the process this:

1. Undermines international development and security, and fuels conflict

2. Threatens public health, spreads disease and causes death

3. Undermines human rights

4. Promotes stigma and discrimination

5. Creates crime and enriches criminals

6. Causes deforestation and pollution

7. Wastes billions on ineffective law enforcement

The 'war on drugs' is a policy choice. There are other options that, at the very least, should be debated and explored using the best possible evidence and analysis.

We all share the same goals – a safer, healthier and more just world.

Therefore, we the undersigned, call upon world leaders and UN agencies to quantify the unintended negative consequences of the current approach to drugs, and assess the potential costs and benefits of alternative approaches."

Martin Powell,
Co-ordinator of the Count the Costs campaign said:

“In 1961 UN member states gathered to sign the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the legal cornerstone of the enforcement-led approach that has become known as the global war on drugs. Fifty years later, with literally trillions of dollars spent, illegal drugs are one of the largest commodity trades on earth. Even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime that oversees the global drug control system, concedes that drug enforcement efforts have fuelled the creation of a vast criminal market with disastrous negative unintended consequences.

Yet no government or UN body has ever quantified these negative costs, or meaningfully explored alternatives to the war on drugs. After half a century this is long overdue. Only by looking at the evidence of what has worked and what has not can we hope to move towards a global drug control system that is, as the UNODC has suggested ‘fit for purpose’.”

The Count the Costs call mirrors numerous comments made by world leaders, concerning the need to evaluate the costs and benefits of various policy regimes including President Santos of Colombia, Washington Post, Dec 2010:

“There are some fundamental structural contradictions in this war on drugs . . . We in Colombia have been successful, but our success is hurting the whole of Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa, and eventually it will backfire on us again. So are we pursuing the correct long-term policy? I don't object to discussing any alternatives but if we are going to discuss alternatives, let's discuss every alternative… what is the cost, what is the benefit of each alternative?”

The War on Drugs: Count the Costs campaign launch is backed by: International Drug Policy Consortium; International Harm Reduction Association; Eurasian Harm Reduction Network; Drug Policy Alliance (US); Espolea (Mexico); Release (UK); Transform Drug Policy Foundation (UK); Hungarian Civil Liberties Union; CuPIHD (Mexico); Transnational Institute (Netherlands); International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (Canada); New Zealand Drug Policy Foundation; Washington Office on Latin America.



Martin Powell, Count the Costs Project Coordinator
+44 (0)7875 679301

Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst, Transform Drug Policy Foundation
+44 (0)7980 213943

Simona Merkinaite, Program Officer, Eurasian Harm Reduction Network(EHRN)
+370 68254401

Notes for Editors

  1. War on Drugs - Count the Costs launch event:

Where: Mozart Room, Vienna International Conference Centre, Vienna
When: Wednesday 23 March, 13.15 – 14.45


  • Simona Merkinaite: Policy and Advocacy Program Officer, Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (Lithuania) - The health and human rights impacts of drug law enforcement in the Eurasian regions
  • Aram Barra: Drug Policy Programme Director, Espolea (Mexico) - Counting the costs of Mexico’s 'war on drugs'
  • Damon Barrett: Senior Human Rights Analyst, International Harm Reduction Association (UK) - Drugs and human rights: is drug law enforcement proportionate? The case for Impact Assessment
  • Chair: Martin Powell: Count the Costs Project Coordinator, Transform Drug Policy Foundation (UK)

For more information visit:

  1. The unintended consequences of the war on drugs were outlined by then Executive Director of UN Office on Drugs and Crime Antonio Maria Costa in "Making drug control 'fit for purpose': Building on the UNGASS decade" UNODC, 2008, p10:

“The first unintended consequence is a huge criminal black market that thrives in order to get prohibited substances from producers to consumers…
The second unintended consequence is what one might call policy displacement. The expanding criminal black market obviously demanded a commensurate law enforcement response, and more resources. The consequence was that public health was displaced into the background, more honoured in lip service and rhetoric, but less in actual practice…

The third unintended consequence is geographical displacement. It is often called the balloon effect because squeezing (by tighter controls) one place produces a swelling (namely, an increase) in another place…

The fourth unintended consequence is what one might call substance displacement. If the use of one drug was controlled, by reducing either supply or demand, suppliers and users moved on to another drug with similar psychoactive effects.

The fifth unintended consequence is the way we perceive and deal with the users of illicit drugs. A system appears to have been created in which those who fall into the web of addiction find themselves excluded and marginalized from the social mainstream, tainted with a moral stigma, and often unable to find treatment even when they may be motivated to want it.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

CFR report calls for Commission on alternatives, including legalisation

A new report from the US based Council on Foreign Relations titled 'The Drug War in Mexico: Confronting a Shared Threat' makes a powerful critique of the ongoing enforcement-led US response, before calling for a more pragmatic approach built more around development and public health interventions. The report specifically calls for a Government inquiry into the potential costs and benefits drug legalisation, and for the Federal government to allow state level experimentation with the legalisation, taxation and regulation of cannabis/marijuana.

The analysis that leads to these recommendations is not new, but is clearly stated (for full text with references - see pdf) highlighting the need to look at the potential costs and benefits of current policy against those of policy alternatives (a DTO is a Drug Trafficking Organisation):

Rethinking U.S. Drug Policy
Mexico’s security crisis illustrates the limitations of current anti-drug strategies and offers an opportunity to shift the paradigm to a more sensible approach. Over the last four decades, the war on drugs has lacked clear, consistent, or achievable objectives; has had little effect on aggregate demand; and has imposed an enormous social and economic cost. A state-driven, supply-side, and penalty based approach has failed to curb market production, distribution, and consumption of drugs. The assumption that punishing suppliers and users can effectively combat a large market for illicit drugs has proven to be utterly false. Rather, prohibition bestows enormous profits on traffickers, criminalizes otherwise law-abiding users and addicts, and imposes enormous costs on society. Meanwhile, there has been no real effect on the availability of drugs or their consumption, and three quarters of U.S. citizens believe that the war on drugs has failed.

One flaw of current U.S.-Mexico strategy is the false presumption that international trafficking of drugs, guns, and cash can be effectively addressed through interdiction, particularly along the nearly two-thousand-mile U.S.-Mexican border. After a three-decade effort to beef up security, the U.S.Mexico border is more heavily fortified than at any point since the U.S.-Mexico war of 1846–48. The United States has deployed more than twenty thousand border patrol agents and built hundreds of miles of fencing equipped with high-tech surveillance equipment, all at an annual cost of billions of dollars—with $3 billion per year spent on border control alone. While this massive security build-up at the border has achieved maximum attainable levels of operational control, the damage to Mexico’s drug cartels caused by border interdiction has been inconsequential. Meanwhile, there have been several unintended consequences of heightened interdiction at the border, including added hassles and delays that obstruct billions of dollars in legitimate commerce each year, the expansion and increased sophistication of cross-border smuggling operations, and greater U.S. vulnerability to attacks and even infiltration by traffickers. Further efforts to beef up the border through more patrolling and fencing will have diminishing returns, and will likely cause more economic harm than gains in security for the struggling communities of the border region.

Given the limits of U.S. drug policy, there is a need for more information and analysis to weigh the costs and benefits of current efforts against alternative policy options. For example, one recent study suggests that legalizing marijuana would cause as much as $1 to 2 billion in losses for Mexican drug traffickers, since competition from legally registered producers would drive them out of the business. Since these DTOs would continue to smuggle other profitable illicit drugs, the main benefit of marijuana legalization would be to allow U.S. border security and law enforcement to focus their resources on other problems. Of course, while support for this idea is growing, the potential hazards and limitations of drug legalization are substantial. Legalization would almost certainly cause drug traffickers to move into other illicit activities to maintain profitability, so U.S. and Mexican authorities would still need to develop better measures to combat kidnapping, robbery, extortion, and other forms of organized crime. Meanwhile, as with other controlled substances, like tobacco and alcohol, increased recreational drug use would likely result in widespread use and significant social harms in both countries, including traffic fatalities, fatal overdoses, addiction, and chronic health problems.
Any effort to legalize drugs would need to proceed with careful study, ample deliberation, and due caution. Yet, with or without legalization, authorities should work with greater urgency and focus to develop public health and law enforcement measures to prevent, treat, and reduce the harms associated with drug consumption. In the end, treating drug consumption and organized crime as separate problems will make it possible to address both more effectively. To make this possible—and before other countries or even some U.S. states venture further down the road toward drug legalization—the U.S. federal government should move quickly to examine the current approach and chart a course toward a more effective drug policy.
The author seems to make somewhat sweeping, non evidence-based assumptions about reform and increasing use (although it is ambiguous - is he merely warning or the dangers of increased use if the process is ill managed?)  and fails to make a distinction between use and misuse, or prevalence and harm (See Blueprint for Regulation, p. 40)

It is, however, worth reading the whole 56 page report. The key drug law reform recommendations are:

Reevaluate U.S. Drug Policy

The U.S. Congress should commission an independent advisory group to examine the fiscal and social impacts of drug legalization as well as other alternative approaches to the war on drugs. The commission should be provided adequate funding---at least $2 million---to provide a comprehensive review of existing policies and develop realistic, clearly defined, and achievable policy recommendations for reducing the harms
caused by drug consumption and abuse.

Shift U.S. Counter-Drug Priorities to Focus on Major Sources of Illicit Income
To allow policy experimentation, the federal government should permit states to legalize the production, sale, taxation, and consumption of marijuana. While testing this policy shift, authorities should redirect scarce law enforcement resources to focus on the more damaging and socially unacceptable drugs (like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine) from which Mexican DTOs derive more than 70 percent of their drug proceeds.

The first of these calls is in line with Transform's call for current drug policy and alternatives to be subject to meaningful scrutiny in the form of an Impact Assessment.

We would question the wisdom of directing resources towards more risky drugs proposed in the second (no more likely to succeed, and just as likely to lead to unintended negative consequences as any prohibition where demand is already established) but the call for an experiment in legalisation and regulation of cannabis is still an important one for an influential body such as the CFR to be endorsing.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

How to skew polls and influence people

Most people would assume that professional pollsters understand the importance of how their questions are worded. If you want to obtain valid results from your poll, you need to make sure that your questions represent both sides of an issue fairly, without any latent bias in their wording.

For example, if you want to know people’s views on taxation, you should recognise that there is likely to be a vast difference in responses between the following questions:

(1) Do you favour an increase in the level of tax you pay on your income?
(2) Do you favour greater investment in public services such as healthcare, education and policing?

Obviously the two questions are different sides of the same coin, but if you only ask the first, you’re likely to get an overwhelming ‘no’, and if you only ask the second, you’re likely to get an overwhelming ‘yes’. Predictably, therefore, how a question is phrased, or the context in which it is asked, affects the answer you will get to it (as ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ brilliantly satirises in the scene below).

Pollsters appear to understand this concept when it comes to most issues – but rarely with drug policy reform.

If you look at the findings of an Angus Reid public opinion poll conducted last year, then you may feel disheartened at the lack of public support for a more progressive UK drug policy. In that poll, participants were shown a list of banned substances, including cannabis, along with the question ‘Do you support or oppose the legalisation of each of the following drugs?’.

Unsurprisingly, when formulated bluntly like this, the question yielded only a 35% level of support for the 'legalisation' of cannabis; and support for the legalisation of other drugs (generally seen as riskier) was lower still, with approximately one in five respondents approving of such a move. (It should be noted, however, than even this seemingly low level of support is relatively encouraging, as several years ago some polls claimed that only one in ten were in favour of legalising the most risky drugs.)

Part of the problem relates to the visceral aversion, embedded in the public consciousness, to the word ‘legalisation’. This aversion is largely based on confusion about what the term means when used in the drugs debate. The confusion is not surprising; it stems from the fact that legalisation is merely a process (broadly of making something illegal, legal), rather than a policy end point. A straight ‘Legalisation: yes/no?’ question gives no indication of how the legal regulatory regime being advocated as the final outcome of the process might actually work.

In the absence of such policy context just saying ‘legalisation’ on its own can reasonably be taken to suggest the removal of all controls – moving to the sort of commercial free market that Transform and most drug law reform advocates are specifically not calling for.

The legalisation question without any policy or regulatory context can also be confused with a question about personal or moral approval of drugs or drug use (in effect, ‘Do you approve of/condone the use of “drug x”’), as opposed to the real question, which is about what one thinks is the best policy response to dealing with a particular drug or drugs in society. We may, for example, disapprove of unhealthy food or overeating without suggesting blanket prohibitions on pork scratchings, or criminal punishments for people who eat too many of them.

If we want to know whether people morally approve of certain drug-using behaviours then it would be fine to ask a question about that. If we want to know what form of legal regulation people think would be appropriate for certain drugs or drug-using behaviours then we need a better question than ‘Legalisation: yes/no?’.

As a starting point, instead of using only the word ‘legalisation’ in opinion polls on drug policy reform, it might be more appropriate and accurate to ask people whether they support or oppose ‘legal regulation of drug production supply and use’, or ‘legalisation and regulation’, which would be better, if still imperfect. What is really needed, however, is a more specific and detailed description of the policy options people are being asked to chose from.

This semantic minefield of drug policy terminology is made all the more perilous by misunderstandings of the word ‘decriminalisation’. Instead of conflating the meanings of ‘decriminalisation’ and ‘legalisation’, as so often happens in media debate, pollsters should be aware of and clearly clarify the distinction between the two terms. The term ‘decriminalisation’ is usually understood to refer to the removal of only criminal penalties for certain activities (most commonly possession and personal use of drugs), but not of other, non-criminal sanctions, such as fines. 'Legalisation', by contrast, refers to a transition from prohibited to legally regulated production, supply and availability, with decriminalisation of use implicit in this process.

Neither term, unfortunately, has a strict legal definition, so they are subject to frequent confusion, often being used interchangeably. The only solution to this misunderstanding is to refrain from using the words in isolation and, again, contextualise them with some clear and concise explanatory text, eg: ‘Decriminalisation – moving from criminal to civil/administrative sanctions such as fines, for personal possession and use’.

When you look at polls which are more aware of the nuances of drug policy language, the results are strikingly different and give reason to be considerably more optimistic about the prospects for reform.

A recent poll of 2,000 people, commissioned by the Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform, asked participants to select the most tolerable of three regulatory options for a range of drugs, along with a clearer description of what each option actually entails. They were:

  • Light regulation (drugs sold like tobacco and alcohol are now)
  • Strict government control and regulation (an example of how government could heavily regulate a legal market in an attempt to minimise harm)
  • Prohibition (the current status of illegal drugs)
Now without claiming this formulation is methodologically bulletproof, it does demonstrate that when given a clearer overview of the features of each option, it seems that, contrary to the findings of the less comprehensive Angus Reid poll, respondents are increasingly receptive to the idea of moving from absolute prohibitions to some method of legally regulating drug markets and availability.

The results of the LDDPR poll were that 70% of participants favoured some form of legal regulation of cannabis, with one in three of those polled favouring a regulatory system similar to that for tobacco and alcohol.

It also emerged that, when compared to the results of the Angus Reid poll, a far greater number of people would like to see the legally regulated availability of ecstasy (39% vs. 19%), cocaine (36% vs. 16%) and heroin (30% vs. 18%).

Perhaps emphasising just how much of a difference good polling can make, the LDDPR survey also made the somewhat unexpected finding that Daily Mail and Daily Express readers constituted the demographic most in favour of the strict control and regulation of drugs. Total support for at least some system of legal regulation was 66% among these readers, and 67% among Conservative voters.

Clearly more work in this area is needed (perhaps with some independently agreed formulation for the questions), but Ewan Hoyle, the founder of LDDPR, has highlighted the importance of asking the right questions when trying to establish the public’s views on drug policy reform.

Interestingly, his conclusion – that when asked to choose between various regulatory options, the British people are comfortable with strict control and regulation as a solution to our drugs problem’ – also seems to apply to the American people, too.

An Economist-YouGov poll carried out last month asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement ‘Marijuana should be legalised, taxed and regulated’. In every age group polled – even over-65s – more people favoured than opposed legalisation. Although it is hard to say definitively, it seems reasonable to suggest that this is due to the mention of the more public-friendly measures of taxation and regulation – measures which, although they go hand in hand with legalisation, are so often omitted in opinion polls on drug policy reform.

It certainly seems to be the case that this question, which spells out a little more clearly what is actually being advocated, delivers more positive results than the more traditional ‘Legalisation of marijuana: yes/no?’ – although even when this latter question is asked we can observe a long-term trend of growing support for change in the US:

The above graph, compiled by polling guru Nate Silver, amalgamates all the data he could find on the issue of the legalisation of cannabis/marijuana – including the results of several Gallup polls and the General Social Survey – and shows that there has been an upward trend in favour of such a move since 1990.

Consequently, while especially encouraging findings emerge from polls that provide a more comprehensive overview of what drug law reform might actually entail, even the findings of polls that do not give a sufficient account of the options for reform show a sustained, long-term increase in support for more progressive drug control measures.

The story with regard to cannabis was roughly similar in the UK until the mid-2000s, since when support has dropped from between 40-50% (up from 15% in the 1980s), to between 30-40% today. Speculating as to why this has happened is for another blog, although it probably reflects the shifts in the nature of the UK cannabis market towards stronger varieties and the associated health concerns raised, or arguably hyped, by the media and politicians during the interminable cannabis re-re-classification saga. It may also reflect the fall in use noted by the British Crime Survey over the same period.

Hopefully the growing support more broadly – in the UK and elsewhere – will reassure policymakers and politicians that the legal regulation of currently illegal drugs is not only practical but politically possible. Remember that the steady change in public opinion has happened despite, until very recently, near universal political and media hostility. If any major political forces got behind reform it seems likely that things would change much more quickly – it's a question of who wants to pick up the baton and claim the plaudits.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Upcoming event: 'A ceasefire in the war on drugs'

Transform's senior policy analyst, Steve Rolles, will be amongst the speakers at the second event in the 'Ceasefire in the war on drugs?' debate series organised by the University of Bedfordshire, joining former chief constable Tom lloyd, and the UK's Colombian Ambassador Mauricio Rodriguez Munera. Titled 'How the world's view of the drugs 'war' is changing', the event is at Kings College London at 6pm on the 6th of April. The event is are free and open to all (but space is limited).

For more details, including speakers at both events, please see the flyer below (click to see full size).