COHA Responds to the UN World Drug Report

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its 306-page annual World Drug Report on Wednesday, providing a mix of statistical findings and normative policy recommendations which hold implications for U.S. and international trade, security, and drug policy. While COHA applauds the report’s praise for rehabilitation over incarceration, the conclusions being drawn from the report and the policy recommendations included in it ought to be modified in light of historical precedent as drug-related experiences from which much can be learned.

A misconception circulating among media outlets is that the decline of drug use and production in the last year marks a significant victory for drug enforcement strategies. Ten years ago, the United Nations promised to bring about a significant decline, even a virtual elimination, of drug use by 2008. Yet consumption and production levels, even with last year’s decline, are almost exactly where they were ten years ago when this promise was made. All the report showed is that prevention efforts have led to virtually no substantial long term change in relevant figures.

The so-called “staggering” 28 percent decline in Colombia’s cocaine production holds dangerous implications for the pending Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (CFTA). The decrease was largely the result of the eradication of hundreds of acres of coca fields, an infeasible long-term strategy, given the highly fungible nature of drug production. Record levels of production in Peru and Bolivia already have accompanied the drop in Colombia, pointing to another historic trend of the “balloon effect,” where pressure in one geographic area (i.e. Plan Colombia) merely disperses production to others. This trend may also account for the rising influence of Mexican cartels in Central America, after México’s President Felipe Calderón exercised considerable military force in his country. As well, a drop in cocaine production does not necessarily nullify the egregious human rights abuses and dubious legal institutions to justify preferential trade status (see forthcoming COHA research).

The debate rages on
Cognizant of the mounting support for the elimination of drug controls, the UN report spent considerable time specifically engaging proponents of drug legalization. Despite reasonable claims that decreased drug prices following legalization might lead to increased availability and addiction in developing countries, the report offered neither a more effective strategy for reducing organized crime nor evidence that the cost of higher rates of addiction outweighed the already devastating violence and corruption brought about and perpetuated by prohibition. The authors claimed that, just as one continues to fight the cycle of poverty, so must we continue to combat the omnipresent war on drugs (163). However, a more apropos analogy might be to ask why, after the American experience with organized crime and black markets during the 1920s, one would think that drug prohibition would produce better results. While legalization would undoubtedly have its drawbacks, the fact that no tangible progress has been made under the current model, and with billions of narcodollars directly fund public enemies in Latin America and Afghanistan, and that half a million Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses might make legalization, combined with medical treatment for addicts, an attractive option.

The report went as far as to celebrate decriminalization, advocating a global paradigm shift preferring treatment over incarceration for petty offenders. Decriminalization would give users access to medical treatment and allow government authorities to focus efforts on more influential targets like cartel leaders. While it may be a praiseworthy move, decriminalization does little to undercut the violent criminal activities and malfeasance perpetuated by the $320 billion black market drug industry.

In a recent development, Mexican President Calderón is all but guaranteed to sign a bill decriminalizing small, personal possessions of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs, possibly providing an impetus for President Obama to act in kind. As pointed out in the report, the right answer is not to regulate and heavily tax drug sales; government profiteering from citizen addiction would be neither ethical nor helpful for eliminating black markets. Allowing marginalized addicts back into society and providing medical treatment to them are large benefits of decriminalization, in addition to reducing unnecessarily costly and high incarceration rates. Yet, despite unflagging optimism, any strategy short of legalization has proven statistically impotent and historically futile in promoting peace, democratic institutions, freedom from oppression, and strengthening the rule of law. By providing billions of dollars for the purchase of weapons and the corruption of civil institutions, prohibition has infected and destroyed not only whole families and communities but entire countries, including the lives of those who made no conscious decision to participate in drug related activities.

Looking forward with hope
A strategy of concentrating on both the report’s recommended focus on medical treatment combined with legalization would prove the most sensible long-term approach. Politically, this would begin initially by analyzing the success of decriminalization in the U.S., a move already made by 13 American states and several countries. After a period of evaluation, if no serious progress is made in undermining organized crime, it may be time to allow verified, taxed, and quality insured businesses to create and sell drugs and to find a better use for the $44.1 billion dollars spent in this country enforcing prohibition every year.