Drug Policy

Is the U.N.'s Chief Anti-Drug Official a Reformer, or Is It Just That the Reformers Are Prohibitionists?


A couple of weeks ago, when I noted the U.N.'s latest World Drug Report, several readers were skeptical of my claim that Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, is "a pretty smart guy." Based on the preface he wrote, which responded to critics of the war on drugs with the usual dogmatic bluster, that judgment was indeed hard to believe. But if you delve more deeply into the report, as I did while researching tomorrow's column (about the Obama administration's new anti-drug strategy in Afghanistan), you will see evidence of more subtle thinking, including some points frequently made by reformers:

International drug control has produced several unintended consequences, the most formidable of which is the creation of a lucrative black market for controlled substances, and the violence and corruption it generates….

The main problem is not that drug control efforts have failed to eliminate drug use, an aspirational goal akin to the elimination of war and poverty. It is that in attempting to do so, they have indirectly enriched dangerous criminals, who kill and bribe their way from the countries where drugs are produced to the countries where drugs are consumed….

The practice of banning certain addictive substances while permitting and taxing others is indeed difficult to defend based on the relative harmfulness of the substances themselves….

If the primary performance indicator of the police is volumes of arrests and seizures, little thought will be given to the impact of these arrests and seizures. Not surprisingly, these arrests and seizures are unlikely to have much positive impact. Research indicates that more enforcement is not necessarily better….

While around 5% of the adult population used some illicit drug in the last year (140-250 million users), only about 18-38 million could be classified as "problem drug users."

The UNODC still defends prohibition, of course, mainly on the grounds that repealing it would lead to high levels of abuse, especially in developing countries where many people cannot afford black market prices. The report asserts, without offering any real evidence, that the harm caused by the increase in drug abuse would outweigh the harm caused by prohibition. But at least it admits that prohibition causes harm, which is not something you typically hear from American drug policy officials. The UNODC also acknowledges that goals like eliminating drug crops, stopping transportation, or preventing distribution can never be achieved, which should be obvious but counts as a significant concession from an organization that for a long time officially aspired to "a drug-free world." The report notes in passing that the vast majority of people who consume illegal drugs are "casual users" (who it says should be subject to "conditional release" or administrative penalties), not addicts (who it says should received "evidence-based treatment"). And it comes close to endorsing Portugese-style decriminalization (discussed here by Glenn Greenwald) while arguing that "drug use arrestees should not be incarcerated."

In fact, I'm not sure there's much difference between Costa's position and the reforms advocated by the three former Latin American presidents who grabbed headlines in February by criticizing the war on drugs. They all agree that prohibition breeds violence and corruption (but are not prepared to end it), that drug addicts should not go to jail (but should be forced into treatment under threat of jail), that some forms of decriminalization make sense (as long as it stops short of allowing production or sale), and that law enforcement resources should be focused on big traffickers. Is this overlap between people perceived as defenders of the status quo and people perceived as reformers a good sign? I have my doubts.