Today Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, gave a talk at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in New Orleans. No drug warrior of Costa's stature has ever before agreed to speak at this gathering (which is held every other year by the Drug Policy Alliance), so he scored points for courage just by showing up. His tone was good-natured, even jocular, and he displayed admirable patience with the scattered hecklers who apparently could not bear to hear him out without loudly expressing their displeasure. Costa, an economist, was much more intellectually honest than the average U.S. drug warrior, which was scary as well as refreshing.

Although his office devotes much of its attention to source control, Costa conceded that eradication and interdiction will never have a lasting impact on drug consumption, since new sources inevitably will appear as long as there's a demand for psychoactive substances. Even while citing the violence and disorder associated with the drug trade as a reason to discourage use, he admitted that shootouts between dealers in Baltimore and chaos in Latin America are products of the black market created by prohibition. He tried to find common ground with his audience by emphasizing "prevention" and "treatment" over law enforcement, and this tack drew a few rounds of applause. He conceded that the "drug-free world" of U.N. propaganda posters will never be realized.

At the same time, Costa took it for granted that a drug-free world is desirable, and here is where he lost most of the audience. Likening drug use to hunger, poverty, AIDS, and sexual slavery, he said none of these problems is likely to disappear anytime soon, but that doesn't mean we should stop fighting them. He seemed genuinely puzzled by the idea that drug use is not inherently bad, let alone that it can enhance people's lives. Notably, he included alcohol and tobacco on the list of substances whose use ideally should be eliminated. So for all his apparent reasonableness, Costa struck me as more of a fanatic on the subject of drugs than most government officials in the U.S., who typically concede that alcohol can be (and usually is) consumed responsibly, while falsely insisting that's not true of the currently illegal drugs.