The U.N.'s 10-Year Plan to Eradicate Drugs: How'd That Go?


In 1998 Pino Arlacchi, executive director of the U.N. Drug Control Program, declared: "Global coca leaf and opium poppy acreage totals an area less than half the size of Puerto Rico. There is no reason it cannot be eliminated in little more than a decade." How's that going? Today Antonio Maria Costa, Arlacchi's successor at what is now the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), issued a 314-page report that takes stock of what was accomplished during the U.N. Decade Against Drug Abuse. Among other things, estimated global production of opium more than doubled, from 4,346 metric tons in 1998 to 8,890 in 2007. During the same period estimated cocaine production rose from 825 to 994 metric tons. But don't be discouraged, Costa says; a century after the dawn of international drug control efforts, we're about to turn the corner.

For some reason, Costa notes in the UNODC report's preface, "there has been a limited but growing chorus among politicians, the press, and even in public opinion saying: drug control is not working." He worries that "the broadcasting volume is still rising and the message spreading." Hence he feels a need to conspicuously refute the anti-prohibitionists once and for all. Declaring that "the repeal debate" is "characterized by sweeping generalizations and simplistic solutions," he counters them with sophisticated arguments like these:

1. "Are the partisans of this cause also in favour of legalizing and taxing other seemingly intractable crimes like human trafficking?…Don't make wicked transactions legal just because they are hard to control."

2. "Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled—they are controlled because they are harmful."

3. "There cannot be exchanges, no quid-pro-quos, when health and security are at stake."

4. If the government allows adults to decide for themselves which intoxicants they want to consume, it will "end up violating somebody's human rights." Specifically, "the right to health of drug addicts," which demands that they be "assisted" to stop doing what they want to do.

5. While it's true that "drug controls have generated a criminal market of macro-economic dimensions that uses violence and corruption to mediate between demand and supply," the solution is not to repeal prohibition but to say "no to crime" as well as "no to drugs." 

The shocking (and encouraging) thing is that Costa, an economist with a Ph.D. from U.C.-Berkeley, is a pretty smart guy (though not quite as smart as he thinks he is). The fact that he ends up mouthing the same sort of non sequiturs, unsupported generalizations, obvious falsehoods, Orwellian redefinitions, and empty platitudes that you hear from the average ex-DEA bureaucrat is yet another sign that drug warriors are intellectually bankrupt.

But reformers shouldn't get cocky. Costa offers another good example of how prohibitionists use the language of medicine and public health, so popular among critics of the war on drugs, to shore up their position:

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 [against prohibiton], traded-off in order to reduce the security threat posed by international mafias….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.

And what happens to the government-identified addicts who don't want to be "assisted," who turn down "medical help" and spurn the "attention" of crusading paternalists like Costa? Are they free to go about their business, or will help be forced upon them? Since Costa equates drug use with slavery, you can guess the answer; these poor bastards will be emancipated, whether they like it or not.

The UNODC report is available here. In 2007 I described Costa's appearance at the International Conference on Drug Policy Reform.

[Thanks to Tom Angell at LEAP for the tip.]