Overnight the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched its annual report on illicit drugs. As usual it shows that demand and supply is slowing in some markets for some drugs, while in other markets demand for other drugs is rising — it’s the same story every year. But this year the UNODC is feeling a little defensive, with its Executive Director Antonio Mario Costa taking a swipe at those eminently sensible people, including many judges police officers and health professionals, who argue that the current war on drugs strategy is an abject failure.

Over the past year, the UN says, cultivation of cocaine and heroin sources in Afghanistan and Columbia declined by 19% and 18% respectively, while cultivation increased in Peru and Bolivia.

“In terms of consumption, the world’s biggest markets for cannabis (North America, Oceania, and Western Europe), cocaine (North America and some parts of Western Europe) and opiates (South East Asia and Western Europe) are all flat or down,” the UN Report notes.

But the manufacture of drugs like ecstasy, amphetamines, and methamphetamine are growing ever more sophisticated. “What was once a cottage industry has become big business. Industrial-sized laboratories in South East Asia — particularly in the Greater Mekong Sub-region – are producing massive quantities of methamphetamine tablets, and crystal meth and other substances like Ketamine,” the UN Report says.

And drug trafficking is still killing people. “The $50 billion global cocaine market is undergoing seismic shifts,” said Mr. Costa. “Purity levels and seizures (in main consumer countries) are down, prices are up, and consumption patterns are in flux. This may help explain the gruesome upsurge of violence in countries like Mexico. In Central America, cartels are fighting for a shrinking market,” he said.

But forget about changing the current mix of prevention and prohibition polices, says Costa. “Illicit drugs pose a danger to health. That’s why drugs are, and must remain, controlled,” he says. Well on that argument, how about being consistent and banning alcohol and tobacco as well?

Mr. Costa argues that a “free market for drugs would unleash a drug epidemic, while a regulated one would create a parallel criminal market. Legalization is not a magic wand that would suppress both mafias and drug abuse.”

That a senior UN official could spout such nonsense is frightening. The link between prohibition and crime has been made by many, but rarely so eloquently as by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron: “Prohibition creates violence because it drives the drug market underground. This means buyers and sellers cannot resolve their disputes with lawsuits, arbitration or advertising, so they resort to violence instead.”

And the UN stance is out of step with highly informed views on drugs policy in the US. An organization called LEAP in that country has now got the attention of Democrat rising star, Senator Jim Webb and an increasing number of other legislators. The group, only established in 2002, now has13,000 judges, police officers, doctors, corrections officers and policy makers from around the world, and has collated mountains of evidence which unambiguously demonstrates the failure of prohibition policies.

Groups like LEAP are not hard left pot smoking old hippies, but are conservative and world wise. As one of their members, a former Seattle Police chief Norm Stamper told the New York Times recently, “We’ve spent a trillion dollars prosecuting the war on drugs. What do we have to show for it? Drugs are more readily available, at lower prices and higher levels of potency. It’s a dismal failure.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Costa is in his UN ivory tower living in a world of make believe where the war on drugs is being won.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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