U.N. Drug Report Admits Policy Problems, But Slams Legalization Talk
International drug-control policies need to be reformed and the solution to growing drug trafficking and related crime lies in recognizing drugs as a health problem — one that can be prevented, treated and controlled — but not legalizing and taxing drugs, according to a new report from the United National Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Echoing one of the main arguments of drug-policy reform advocates, the top anti-drug official at the United Nations says that drug prohibition has created “an illicit black market of macro-economic proportions.” But UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa warned that drug legalization would be a “historic mistake” even as the 2009 U.N. World Drug Report praised drug decriminalization policies enacted in Portugal, where possession remains illegal but users face only civil, not criminal penalties.
Decriminalization of smalltime drug use coupled with stepped-up enforcement aimed at traffickers would “keep drugs out of the hands of those who would avoid them under a system of full prohibition, while encouraging treatment, rather than incarceration, for users,” the report said.
Costa, who unveiled the report during a Washington, D.C., ceremony with new U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, said that while the link between drugs and the growth of organized crime crime is undeniable, the solution lies in “more controls on crime, without fewer controls on drugs.”
The 2009 report opens with an acknowledgment that calls for exploring alternatives to drug prohibition have grown as more policymakers and the public have concluded that current drug-control policies have failed. However, the report blasts calls for legalizing and taxing currently illegal drugs as “unethical and uneconomical,” comparing the idea to putting a tax on “other seemingly intractable crimes like human trafficking.”
The UNODC parries the economic argument for legalization as “naive and myopic,” saying that only rich countries would even have a chance of effectively regulating the drug market.
“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?” Costa wrote in the report’s executive summary. “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.”
“Proponents of legalization can’t have it both ways,” said Costa. “A free market for drugs would unleash a drug epidemic, while a regulated one would create a parallel criminal market. Legalization is not a magic wand that would suppress both mafias and drug abuse. Societies should not have to choose between protecting public health or public security: they can, and should do both.”
Jack Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), said Costa “would have you believe that the legalization movement is calling for the abolition of drug control. Quite the contrary, we are demanding that governments replace the failed policy of prohibition with a system that actually regulates and controls drugs, including their purity and prices, as well as who produces them and who they can be sold to.”
“The U.N. drug czar is talking out of both sides of his mouth,” added Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “On the one hand he admits global drug prohibition is destabilizing governments, increasing violence, and destroying lives. But on the other hand he offers facile arguments dismissing the need for serious debate on alternative drug policies.”
Interestingly, DPA and other drug-policy reform groups marked World Drug Day on June 26 by issuing a ”call to action” for governments to adopt drug harm-reduction policies such as needle-exchange programs, decriminalize personal use of drugs, and make evidence-based addiction treatment more widely available, among other steps (read PDF). The document did not call for full drug legalization, however, suggesting that perhaps the daylight between drug-policy reformers and international drug-control officials may be narrowing despite the harsh rhetoric from both sides.
Marking World Drug Day on June 26, Costa noted that 5 million people die annually from tobacco use and 2 million die each year from drinking alcohol, while only 200,000 die from illicit-drug use. “Clearly, when you compare drugs to other addictive substances, control is working,” he said.
Costa and Kerlikowske both said that investing more resources in drug treatment and prevention was the best strategy for reducing demand and, ultimately, drug trafficking and profits. “We recognize that addiction is a disease and are seeking public-health solutions,” said Kerlikowske. “My top priority is to intensify efforts to reduce the demand for drugs which fuels crime and violence around the world.”
The report’s recommendations for improving drug control emphasized the need to treat addiction as an illness, and for law enforcement to focus on drug trafficking, not drug users. “People who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution,” said Costa, who called for universal access to drug treatment. Other report recommendations include international agreements against organized crime and greater efficiency in law enforcement.
Globally, the markets for cocaine, opiates and marijuana are either holding steady or in decline, according to the U.N. report, but while use of synthetic drugs may be leveling off in developed countries, consumption of substances like amphetamines, methamphetamine, and ecstasy may be rising in the developing world. Costa said that credit is due to international efforts to control the international drug market.
“The $50 billion global cocaine market is undergoing seismic shifts,” said Costa, who recently unveiled a report asserting that cocaine production in Colombia has dropped 18 percent in 2008, with production of the drug down 28 percent. “Purity levels and seizures (in main consumer countries) are down, prices are up, and consumption patterns are in flux. This may help explain the gruesome upsurge of violence in countries like Mexico. In Central America, cartels are fighting for a shrinking market.”
The report estimated that 41 percent of all cocaine produced is being seized by law-enforcement officials — mostly in Colombia — but only 19 percent of opiates. Costa endorsed the recent shift in antidrug strategy in Afghanistan by the Obama administration, which now plans to focus on interdicting heroin shipments and economic development rather than trying to eradicate poppy crops.