As the world marks the end of the first century of drug prohibition -- the first international anti-drug convention was signed in Shanghai in 1909 -- the global anti-drug bureaucracy finds itself on the defensive. Faced with a rising chorus of critics, the bureaucracy fought back this week as the United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs (UNODC) issued its World Drugs Report 2009. That the UNODC finally feels compelled to confront -- instead of ignore -- its critics is a sign of progress.
HCLU demonstration at March '09 UN drug summit, Vienna
In addition to its usual quantifying of marginal changes in drug production and consumption levels and exhortations to try harder to fight the drug menace, this year's report was remarkable for its preface, penned by UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa, and, in a reversal of tone if not policy, some approving mention of Portugal's eight-year-old experiment with decriminalization.
On decriminalization in Portugal the report noted that:
Portugal is an example of a country that recently decided not to put drug users in jail. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, Portugal's "decriminalization" of drug usage in 2001 falls within the Convention parameters: drug possession is still prohibited, but the sanctions fall under the administrative law, not the criminal law. Those in possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use are issued with a summons rather than arrested. The drugs are confiscated and the suspect must appear before a commission. The suspect's drug consumption patterns are reviewed, and users may be fined, diverted to treatment, or subjected to probation. Cases of drug trafficking continue to be prosecuted, and the number of drug trafficking offenses detected in Portugal is close to the European average.
These conditions 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. Among those who would not welcome a summons from a police officer are tourists, and, as a result, Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism. It also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased.
The report then goes on to say that "while incarceration will continue to be the main response to detected traffickers, it should only be applied in exceptional cases to users." Combined with Costa's "people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution," in the preface, it suggests that the UNODC would not oppose decriminalization, but the report doesn't say that. Instead, it advocates for drug courts and drug treatment.
When it comes to legalization, in the preface, Costa acknowledged his anti-prohibitionist critics and attempted to confront their arguments. His comments are worth quoting at length:
"...Of late, there has been a limited but growing chorus among politicians, the press, and even in public opinion saying: drug control is not working. The broadcasting volume is still rising and the message spreading. Much of this public debate is characterized by sweeping generalizations and simplistic solutions. Yet, the very heart of the discussion underlines the need to evaluate the effectiveness of the current approach. Having studied the issue on the basis of our data, UNODC has concluded that, while changes are needed, they should be in favor of different means to protect society against drugs, rather than by pursuing the different goal of abandoning such protection.
Several arguments have been put forward in favor of repealing drug controls, based on (i) economic, (ii) health, and (iii) security grounds, and a combination thereof.
The economic argument for drug legalization says: legalize drugs, and generate tax income. This argument is gaining favor, as national administrations seek new sources of revenue during the current economic crisis. This legalize and tax argument is unethical and uneconomical. It proposes a perverse tax, generation upon generation, on marginalized cohorts (lost to addiction) to stimulate economic recovery. Are the partisans of this cause also in favor of legalizing and taxing other seemingly intractable crimes like human trafficking? Modern day slaves (and there are millions of them) would surely generate good tax revenue to rescue failed banks. The economic argument is also based on poor fiscal logic: any reduction in the cost of drug control (due to lower law enforcement expenditure) will be offset by much higher expenditure on public health (due to the surge of drug consumption). The moral of the story: don't make wicked transactions legal just because they are hard to control.
Others have argued that, following legalization, a health threat (in the form of a drug epidemic) could be avoided by state regulation of the drug market. Again, this is naive and myopic. First, the tighter the controls (on anything), the bigger and the faster a parallel (criminal) market will emerge -- thus invalidating the concept. Second, only a few (rich) countries could afford such elaborate controls. What about the rest (the majority) of humanity? 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? 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.
The most serious issue concerns organized crime. All market activity controlled by the authority generates parallel, illegal transactions, as stated above. Inevitably, drug controls have generated a criminal market of macro-economic dimensions that uses violence and corruption to mediate between demand and supply. Legalize drugs, and organized crime will lose its most profitable line of activity, critics therefore say. Not so fast. UNODC is well aware of the threats posed by international drug mafias. Our estimates of the value of the drug market (in 2005) were groundbreaking. The Office was also first to ring the alarm bell on the threat of drug trafficking to countries in West and East Africa, the Caribbean, Central America and the Balkans. In doing so we have highlighted the security menace posed by organized crime, a matter now periodically addressed by the UN Security Council. Having started this drugs/crime debate, and having pondered it extensively, we have concluded that these drug-related, organized crime arguments are valid. They must be addressed. I urge governments to recalibrate the policy mix, without delay, in the direction of more controls on crime, without fewer controls on drugs. In other words, while the crime argument is right, the conclusions reached by its proponents are flawed. Why? Because we are not counting beans here: we are counting lives. Economic policy is the art of counting beans (money) and handling trade-offs: inflation vs. employment, consumption vs. savings, internal vs. external balances. Lives are different. If we start trading them off, we end up violating somebody's human rights. There cannot be exchanges, no quid-pro-quos, when health and security are at stake: modern society must, and can, protect both these assets with unmitigated determination. I appeal to the heroic partisans of the human rights cause worldwide, to help UNODC promote the right to health of drug addicts: they must be assisted and reintegrated into society. Addiction is a health condition and those affected by it should not be imprisoned, shot-at or, as suggested by the proponent of this argument, traded off in order to reduce the security threat posed by international mafias. Of course, the latter must be addressed, and below is our advice.
First, law enforcement should shift its focus from drug users to drug traffickers. Drug addiction is a health condition: people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution. Attention must be devoted to heavy drug users. They consume the most drugs, cause the greatest harm to themselves and society -- and generate the most income to drug mafias. Drug courts and medical assistance are more likely to build healthier and safer societies than incarceration. I appeal to Member States to pursue the goal of universal access to drug treatment as a commitment to save lives and reduce drug demand: the fall of supply, and associated crime revenues, will follow. Let's progress towards this goal in the years ahead,and then assess its beneficial impact on the next occasion Member States will meet to review the effectiveness of drug policy (2015).
Second, we must put an end to the tragedy of cities out of control. Drug deals, like other crimes, take place mostly in urban settings controlled by criminal groups. This problem will worsen in the mega-cities of the future, if governance does not keep pace with urbanization. Yet, arresting individuals and seizing drugs for their personal use is like pulling weeds -- it needs to be done again the next day. The problem can only be solved by addressing the problem of slums and dereliction in our cities, through renewal of infrastructures and investment in people -- especially by assisting the youth, who are vulnerable to drugs and crime, with education, jobs and sport. Ghettos do not create junkies and the jobless: it is often the other way around. And in the process mafias thrive.
Third, and this is the most important point, governments must make use, individually and collectively, of the international agreements against uncivil society. This means to ratify and apply the UN Conventions against Organized Crime (TOC) and against Corruption (CAC), and related protocols against the trafficking of people, arms and migrants. There is much more our countries can do to face the brutal force of organized crime: the context within which mafias operate must also be addressed...
To conclude, transnational organized crime will never be stopped by drug legalization. Mafias coffers are equally nourished by the trafficking of arms, people and their organs, by counterfeiting and smuggling, racketeering and loan-sharking, kidnapping and piracy, and by violence against the environment (illegal logging, dumping of toxic waste, etc). The drug/crime trade-off argument, debated above, is no other than the pursuit of the old drug legalization agenda, persistently advocated by the pro-drug-lobby (Note that the partisans of this argument would not extend it to guns whose control -- they say -- should actually be enforced and extended: namely, no to guns, yes to drugs).
So far the drug legalization agenda has been opposed fiercely, and successfully, by the majority of our society. Yet, anti-crime policy must change. It is no longer sufficient to say: no to drugs. We have to state an equally vehement: no to crime. There is no alternative to improving both security and health. The termination of drug control would be an epic mistake. Equally catastrophic is the current disregard of the security threat posed by organized crime."
While Costa's preface can only be read as an attack on the anti-prohibitionist position (while essentially calling for decriminalization of drug use), it also marks an engagement with the anti-prohibitionists. And they are ready to engage right back at him.
"The UN drug czar is talking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand he admits global drug prohibition is destabilizing governments, increasing violence, and destroying lives," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But on the other hand he offers facile arguments dismissing the need for serious debate on alternative drug policies. The report erroneously assumes that prohibition represents the ultimate form of control when in fact it represents the abdication of control," Nadelmann added.
"The world's 'drug czar,' Antonio Maria Costa, would have you believe that the legalization movement is calling for the abolition of drug control," said Jack Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a retired undercover narcotics detective. "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. You can't have effective control under prohibition, as we should have learned from our failed experiment with alcohol in the US between 1920 and 1933."
LEAP wants to keep the conversation going, and it wants citizens around the world to let the UNODC head know what they think. "We're asking people to go to http://www.DrugWarDebate.com, where they can send a message to the world 'drug czar' to educate him about the effects of policies he is supposed to be leading on," said Cole. "Now is the time for action. It's clear that prohibitionists are concerned about reformers' rapidly growing political clout when they attack us on page one of their annual report but didn't even mention us in last year's."
After ignoring anti-prohibitionist critics for years -- the legalization movement wasn't even mentioned in last year's report -- the global anti-drug bureaucracy has come out swinging. Costa has made his best case for smarter, better drug prohibition, and his arguments deserve to be addressed seriously.
But as successful nonviolent social movement leader Mohandas Gandhi famously observed: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win." It appears that the anti-prohibitionist struggle is now in its penultimate stage.