United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa joined forces with US Office of Drug Control Policy head John Walters and other American drug warriors Tuesday at a Washington press conference to announce the release of the UNODC's 2006 World Drug Report and mark the UNODC's annual International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Costa, Walters, and the rest took the opportunity to congratulate themselves on "progress" in the fight to eliminate drug use, and made some quite remarkable statements as they did. But drug policy analysts and reformers from around the world were quick to offer sharp and pointed critiques of what they maintained was a badly distorted view of the successes of global drug prohibition.
Opium production declined 5% worldwide, the report said, adding that production in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle was on the verge of being wiped out with Laotian production down to 14 tons. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is now responsible for nearly 90% of global production, producing about 400 tons last year. Cocaine production and the global market for amphetamines and other stimulants is "stable," the report said.
But marijuana, used by 162 million at least once in 2004, is a serious problem, said Costa. In fact, he said it was no different than hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, and he chided some governments for failing to consistently crack down on the plant. "Today, the harmful characteristics of cannabis are no longer that different from those of other plant-based drugs such as cocaine and heroin," Costa said. "National policies on cannabis vary and sometimes change from one year to the next. With cannabis-related health damage increasing, it is fundamentally wrong for countries to make cannabis control dependent on which party is in government."
Marijuana is "out of control," Costa warned. "It's out of control in supply because it's a weed; it grows everywhere. It's out of control in demand because it's erroneously considered a light drug," he said. "But, and indeed, it is extremely problematic because of much-increased THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, content."
Oddly enough, Costa's overheated remarks about cannabis at the press conference did not agree with what the report itself noted: "Much of the early material on cannabis is now considered inaccurate, and a series of studies in a range of countries have exonerated cannabis of many of the charges leveled against it."
Marijuana is indeed "a massive global problem," agreed US drug czar Walters. "It's not just a gateway, it is a dead end as well as an opening for many other people who go on and use other things, and are polydrug users. It has been for a long time," Walters told the press conference.
Costa's comments on marijuana drew immediate reaction. "DrugScope is surprised and concerned by the UNODC chief's comments regarding cannabis," said Martin Barnes, head of the British drug policy analysis group. "The UK government, education system and charities have worked hard in recent years to ensure our young people are given factual information about the relative harms of drugs. International evidence is clear that cocaine and heroin cause much greater health and social harms than cannabis and it is misleading and irresponsible to suggest otherwise. Cannabis is a harmful substance but the greater harms caused by cocaine and heroin should not be downplayed."
The UNODC also came under broader attack from continental researchers. The World Drug Report "struggles to fabricate success stories about the effectiveness of the global drug control regime," said the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI) in a quick first response. The group accused the UNODC of "flawed comparisons" and "biased claims about cannabis."
The report is "full of scientific insults," said Martin Jelsma, coordinator of TNI's Drugs and Democracy Program. The UNODC should be looking at how to reduce the real harms associated with drug use, he argued, but "harm reduction policy developments are nowhere to be found. This means that the real existing success stories from the past decade, such as reduced numbers of overdose deaths and lower rates of HIV transmission due to harm reduction efforts, are left out completely."
"The report is biased and unbalanced," added TNI drug researcher Tom Blickman. "The use of inconclusive scientific evidence to demonize cannabis is identical to the preceding mistake that resulted in scheduling cannabis at the same level as cocaine and heroin," he said. "The report suffers from the tension between UNODC policy makers who want a strict control regime maintained -- and who are under huge US funding pressure -- and the experts willing to open an honest debate about the effectiveness of outdated aspects of the current policy framework," he says.
"Costa is the perfect man for the job!" exclaimed Joep Oomen, coordinator of the Brussels-based European NGO Council on Drugs and Development (ENCOD). "He lies about the so-called successes in the war on drugs, warns too permissive governments that they will get the drug problem they deserve and spreads panic about increasing potency of cannabis. He is a manipulator, using fear as a weapon to convince people, to make them switch off their common sense. But he is also a pathetic figure, like the captain of the Titanic, surrounded by officers who do not question the course even if the iceberg is in sight," Oomen told DRCNet.
Costa's remarks were aimed in part at the Netherlands, Oomen said. "Between the lines he is referring to European governments which tend to change their laws in favor of a more flexible approach to cannabis. In Costa's world, these governments will actually do what he asks them, although all the evidence they have obtained in the past 30 years is pointing the other way," he said.
"In the Netherlands, it has become clear that a system in which the access to cannabis for adults is legally regulated reduces criminality and favors quality and other health aspects," Oomen explained. "The current Dutch government is unwilling to defend the country's policies on cannabis, but this situation could change after the general elections that will be held in May 2007. Proposals to regulate the cultivation for coffeeshops have been circulating for quite some time among the Social Democratic Party, most likely the winner of these elections. This is Costa's nightmare, and therefore he insists on 'a consistent commitment across the political spectrum and by society at large' for cannabis prohibition. Right on," Oomen declared. "With these kinds of declarations, Costa is promoting drug policy reform."
Costa probably doesn't think so, but the reaction to his over-the-top remarks on marijuana and the quick critiques of the report in general are making clear that the day of uncontested prohibitionist drug policies are history. Meanwhile, China marked the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking as it usually does: by executing drug traffickers in obscene public rituals -- according to Chinese press sources, at least 27 people were executed for drug trafficking and 10 more sentenced to death Monday. Costa had no comment on that.