Friday, March 14, 2008

Drug War Idiocy

"The only thing worse than a fool is an earnest fool" said Mark Twain, and the living proof of that is Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC).

A longtime mid-level UN bureaucrat who skipped his way to
the level of Under-Secretary-General by detouring his career through the OECD, the European Commission and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Costa has a Roberto Benigni capacity to sound utterly sincere saying the most absurd things.

In 2006, for instance, he turned up at NATO headquarters in Brussels, convened a Press conference, and called on the multinational force in Afghanistan "to destroy the heroin labs, disband the open opium bazaars, attack the opium convoys and bring justice to
(sic) the big traders." It didn't seem to matter to him that a week earlier NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer had said publicly that such a role was out of the question because the alliance lacked both mandate and resources. Actually, the multinational force in Afghanistan can barely protect itself, much less try to dismantle a fiercely guarded industry that produces some 90 per cent of the world's heroin supply.

Costa was in fine fettle also a
t the meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna last week. In his opening speech to the CND he argued against the "legalization" of drugs, referring inaccurately to the view of many experts that decriminalization of the drug control regime would deflate the profits to be made from trafficking to a level at which organized crime would no longer have an incentive to be involved. That argument has come from people across the political spectrum, from the late lamented William Buckley to ex-narcs to the leadership of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The breadth of opposition to the existing international drug regime reflects the variety of concerns at what has been happening ever since the effort to ban narcotic drugs began in 1909 with the first International Opium Convention.
The ban was thought to be necessary to stop the opium trade pioneered by the East India Company, which had created a very large body of opium addicts in China, but it proved entirely counterproductive. The corporate interests involved in the trade merely submerged it into a hugely profitable international black market for drugs, with annual proceeds now estimated to be between $500 and $600 billion.

Organized crime, national intelligence agencies, and corrupt politicians and police have been the main beneficiaries of that enormous flow of money. The main losers have been ordinary people who have to contend with drug pushers targeting their children, and addicts driven to crime to pay for their habit
. Efforts to enforce the ban have led to ever more invasive surveillance, draconian anti-drug laws and sentencing guidelines, and weakening of civil liberties. A third of the American prison population is serving time on drug related charges.

The cost to taxpayers has been massive. As the Washington Post reported in February, the White House has asked for over $14 billion for the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2009, two-thirds of that to be spent on enforcement activities. The DEA expenditures are only a fraction of drug-war related costs incurred by 25 other government agencies, and Congress has asked the administration to resubmit a more transparent statement. There has been mounting concern in Congress at the lack of success of enforcement.

Unperturbed by such realities, Costa declared at the CND that the prohibitionist approach was a great success. It was perceived as a disaster only because of an "image problem," he said. As evidence of success he cited the following:
  • "illicit drug use has been contained to less than 5% of the world adult population, as opposed to 5 to 6 times this proportion for people addicted to tobacco or alcohol;
  • "there are no more than 25 million problem drug users - that's less than 0.5% of the world "population. There are more people affected by AIDS;
  • "deaths due to drugs are limited to perhaps 200.000/yr, namely 1/10 of those killed by alcohol and 1/20 of those killed by tobacco;
  • "world-wide, drug cultivation has been slashed (with the obvious exception of Afghanistan where the issue is insurgency, more than narcotics);
  • "adherence to the international drug control regime is practically universal, with the principle of shared responsibility unanimously accepted;
  • "the regulatory system of production, distribution and use of drugs for medical purposes, functions well."
He then proceeded to gut his own argument. The "fundamental objective of the [anti-drug trafficking] Conventions, namely restricting the use of controlled substances to medical purposes" had not yet been met, he said. "Yearly, world markets are still supplied with about 1.000 tons of heroin, another 1.000 tons of cocaine and untold volumes of marijuana, cannabis resin and ATS. Furthermore, while trying to seize these rogue amounts (with varying degrees of success), the drug control system has created a number of (let's call them) unintended consequences." Those "unintended" consequences were the huge international black market in drugs, the booming expense of enforcement efforts, and the social costs of their continued failure.

"Drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal: they are illegal because they are dangerous," Costa said. "In general, a hard-to-tackle problem cannot be spirited away by making it a matter-of-fact. Human trafficking is another crime out of control: should we legalize modern slavery just because it is difficult to stop? As I told a rowdy pro-drug conference in New Orleans a few months ago, legalization of an anti-social behaviour is a poison pill, not a silver bullet. It is a dangerous dialectic to call for a world of free drugs as opposed to a world free of drugs: they come with different degrees of collateral damage. With vision and resources we can enforce the UN drug conventions in a manner that, on balance, represents by far the healthiest and the safest option."

By conflating commercial promotion with decriminalization Costa obscured the reformist argument; by comparing the trafficking of drugs and human beings he muddied the moralities of both. But worse was to come. Appearing before a nongovernmental forum at the CND, he recalled a meeting on drug control reform he had attended in December:
“I attended the meeting of the Drug Policy Alliance [DPA] in New Orleans last December, 1200 participants, 1000 lunatics, 200 good people to talk to. The other ones obviously on drugs.” He didn't realize that most of the sober people listening to him were also at the New Orleans meeting.

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