Thursday, March 12, 2009

UN drugs czar spins us into a new, futile war

The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs is meeting as I write to decide global drug policy for the next ten years. While drug authorities are deeply divided  about the current prohibitionist approach, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, has no doubt that prohibition is the answer.

But he defends his view with a string of fallacies, and this surely undermines his position. 

In a BBC interview today (Wed 11 March, 0832 UK time) , Costa claimed success for prohibition because 100 years ago, a lot more opium was being produced than there is now. However it is not valid to compare Shanghai in 1900 to models of legalised regulation being proposed nowadays by reformers. 

Then, opium was treated just like any commodity and international trade was fostered by Britain. Shiploads of it were produced in India and sold in China where it was consumed at will, largely through smoking in opium dens.

Nobody is proposing a return to any such model. For a start, today's addict injects heroin rather than smoking opium. This change was accelerated if not caused by the US-driven introduction of prohibition – heroin is more easily transported, concealed and consumed than opium, and produces higher profits. Heroin was originally smoked but, as prohibition tightened, the best bang for buck came, literally, from injecting.

That introduces more serious risks such as HIV AIDS. Russia is one of the strictest prohibitionist countries, where addicts are routinely jailed and methadone programs are banned. Needle exchanges are controversial and risky to use. An estimated two million addicts in the country – one addict for every 50 people of working age – is around eight times the rate for other European countries. There are around one million Russians with HIV which used to be spread mainly among drug users but is now spreading to the wider population. 

Russian prohibitionists blame their problem on the occupation of Afghanistan, the source of most of their heroin,  and urge the mass aerial spray-poisoning of opium crops.

But even if this horrendous solution choked the supply of heroin, trends in other countries show that addicts simply turn to other drugs such as pharmaceutical opioids or, worse, amphetamines which can be locally produced in secret labs.

To compare this situation to Shangai in 1900 is ludicrous. In doing so Costa also ignores the fact that the 1998 UN policy called for  a world free of drugs by 2008. It hasn't happened. Drug use is down in some places, up in others. Prohibitionist Sweden, showcase of the conservatives, has the same addiction rate as liberal Norway. Some drugs are declining worldwide but others are rising in popularity.

Costa glosses over this failure by claiming that the War on Drugs has “stabilised” drug consumption. He claims that "legalisation" would cause an explosion in drug use with “major health consequences.” Tell that to a Russian addict with HIV.

Because only 0.5% of people are addicts, he says, prohibition has worked. What nonsense! By the same token, only 1.5% or so of illicit drug users are addicts. The low addiction rates are not a result of prohibition. Simply, most people are too smart to get addicted in the first place, law or no law. 

Prohibitionists like Costa always say “legalisation” because it evokes the spectre of an out-of-control free-for-all with half the population wrecked on drugs. Costa argues that, because far fewer people use illegal drugs than alcohol and tobacco, prohibition has worked. It's more nonsense – our society has always used tobacco and alcohol more than other drugs, legal or not, because they are very different from other drugs. Think of it this way: if cannabis, heroin or ecstasy were legal, would you start using them? Nearly all non-users answer "no". Or, if you drink and we lived under alcohol prohibition, would you accept a glass of fine wine offered by a trusted friend at a private dinner? Probably. The law has little to do with people's choices in this regard.

The illicit drugs simply do not suit most people. A single dose is far more powerful than moderate amounts of alcohol. People take mdma or smoke marihuana to have a strong experience, to greatly alter their mental state in a pleasurable way. Most people are not interested in this and many have unpleasant experiences on these drugs. 

Alcohol is different – people have a few drinks for social reasons, and you can have a few over dinner without great effect.  Many people who enjoy a few drinks  simply dislike the effects of cannabis, hallucinogens or amphetamines. They don't have a good time on them and would not start using them if they were available legally. Just like people in The Netherlands.

A more accurate term than "legalisation" is “controlled availability”, a term which recognises that a legal, regulated framework could actually control many aspects of drug production, distribution and use, earning tax dollars along the way and saving a fortune in the cost of incarcerating millions of people, the great majority of whom have not in fact done anyone else any great harm.

Costa also ignores that the use of cannabis and ecstasy, for instance, exploded under prohibition in the 1960s and 1990s, and that they are easily available in every town in western countries. Is this what he calls success?

However, at least he now recognises the vast global drugs industry, calling it "an unintended consequence of prohibition". This illegal, unregulated and untaxed industry constitutes around 8% of global GDP. It's bigger than the oil and fuel industry! Costa blithely asserts that we simply need to get tougher and police this industry out of existence. 

From what area would he have us take the massive military budget required? Health, education, disaster aid, pensions, infrastructure, anti-terrorism?

What sort of a world would it be? A very ugly one I think, full of soldiers, guns, prisons and poison on a massive scale.

And all to 'prevent' something which for the vast, vast majority of drug users is not even a significant problem.

I note Costa has not answered the question posed to him by the dare to act email campaign: If "legalisation" will lead more people to take drugs, why does prohibitionist San Francisco have three times the cannabis usage rate of liberal Amsterdam? Costa has repeatedly, publicly evaded that one. See the footage of it via the link!

Costa's whole position is based on fallacy. But he doesn't care, because he and his prohibitionist friends control UNODC and all they need is enough spin to convince uncritical media and ill-informed people that their mindset is justified.

The Guardian neatly summarises the alternative approaches to drug regulation here.

PS 13/03/09  Antonio Maria Costa continues with more nonsense soundbites. Get this one: "Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled, they are controlled because they are harmful," he said. 

First, drugs are far more harmful because of prohibition -- see the 'ground glass and rat poison' post above this one on the main blog page. Second, drugs are hardly controlled when they are being pushed by an illegal international industry bigger than the fuel oil industry. It's a clever bit of spin from Costa, appropriating the word 'control' which is used by his opponents as in 'controlled availability', often interchanged with 'regulated supply'.

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