Costa and the UNODC on the defensive

I just finished reading the Executive Summary (pdf) written by Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa, of the UNODC World Drug Report 2009 that is being released today.
For the first time, the UNODC has acknowledged the legalization movement and is pretty defensive about it. Clearly we’re doing our job very well.
[Note: the somewhat random underlining and italics throughout are Costa’s.]

Of late, there has been a limited but
growing chorus among politicians, the press, and even
in public opinion saying: drug control is not working. The
broadcasting volume is still rising and the message
Much of this public debate is characterized by sweeping
generalizations and simplistic solutions. Yet, the very
heart of the discussion underlines the need to evaluate
the effectiveness of the current approach. Having studied
the issue on the basis of our data, UNODC has
concluded that, while changes are needed, they should
be in favour of different means to protect society against
drugs, rather than by pursuing the different goal of
abandoning such protection.

Notice the sweeping generalization of characterizing us as using sweeping generalizations. Note also, that Costa feels so threatened by the our arguments that he can no longer say that things are going just fine — he actually agrees that change is needed. Of course, his approach — finding a “different” version of prohibition — is ridiculous, but it appears we have him on the run.

I. The economic argument for drug legalization says:
legalize drugs, and generate tax income. This argument is
gaining favour, as national administrations seek new
sources of revenue during the current economic crisis.
This legalize and tax argument is un-ethical and uneconomical.
It proposes a perverse tax, generation upon
generation, on marginalized cohorts (lost to addiction)
to stimulate economic recovery. Are the partisans of this
cause also in favour of legalizing and taxing other seemingly
intractable crimes like human trafficking? Modern-
day slaves (and there are millions of them) would
surely generate good tax revenue to rescue failed banks.

Wow! He really is desperate. Equating drug legalization with human trafficking? Legalize and tax is unethical? Perverse tax? He’s provided zero argument, zero fact, but lots of inflammatory language.

The economic argument is also based on poor fiscal
logic: any reduction in the cost of drug control (due to
lower law enforcement expenditure) will be offset by
much higher expenditure on public health (due to the
surge of drug consumption). The moral of the story:
don‰t make wicked transactions legal just because they
are hard to control.

Again, no evidence shown that there will actually be higher public health costs or surges of drug consumption, and again, note the use of the word “wicked.”

Others have argued that, following legalization, a
health threat (in the form of a drug epidemic) could be
avoided by state regulation of the drug market. Again,
this is naive and myopic. […]
Why unleash a drug epidemic in the developing
world for the sake of libertarian arguments made by
a pro-drug lobby that has the luxury of access to drug
treatment? Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled
— they are controlled because they are harmful

What drug epidemic will be unleashed? There is no evidence that one would happen. On the other hand, prohibition is damaging the developing world because they don’t have the resources to deal with all the cartels.
And that last line? What a trite, overused phrase (or at least a variation on it). And totally unsupported by history.

The most serious issue concerns organized crime.
All market activity controlled by the authority generates
parallel, illegal transactions, as stated above. Inevitably,
drug controls have generated a criminal market of macro-
economic dimensions that uses violence and corruption
to mediate between demand and supply. Legalize
drugs, and organized crime will lose its most profitable line
of activity, critics therefore say.
Not so fast. UNODC is well aware of the threats posed
by international drug mafias. […]
Having started this drugs/crime debate, and having
pondered it extensively, we have concluded that these
drug-related, organized crime arguments are valid. They
must be addressed.

Whoa! Costa says our arguments are valid. This is huge, and we should take every opportunity to quote him and the UNODC on it.

The system of international drug control has produced
several unintended consequences, the most formidable
of which is the creation of a lucrative black market for
drugs and the violence and corruption it generates.

— The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report 2009

Of course, Costa is not about to agree that legalization is the solution. But if prohibition isn’t the solution, and legalization isn’t the solution, what is?

I urge governments to recalibrate the
policy mix, without delay, in the direction of more controls
on crime, without fewer controls on drugs
. In other
words, while the crime argument is right, the conclusions
reached by its proponents are flawed.

Note that the UNODC is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, so they can simply shift it over to their other side. Prohibition doesn’t work and causes crime, so we’ll focus on crime while keeping prohibition. (As if crime focus hadn’t already been happening.)
He then goes on to say that countries should shift to a more supply-side oriented approach to drug policy. Yeah, like that’s worked. Some good statements about shifting focus away from drug users, yet he still won’t budge on any meaningful reform.

To conclude, transnational organized crime will never be
stopped by drug legalization. Mafias coffers are equally
nourished by the trafficking of arms, people and their
organs, by counterfeiting and smuggling, racketeering
and loan-sharking, kidnapping and piracy, and by violence
against the environment (illegal logging, dumping
of toxic waste, etc). The drug/crime trade-off argument,
debated above, is no other than the pursuit of the old
drug legalization agenda, persistently advocated by the
pro-drug-lobby (Note that the partisans of this argument
would not extend it to guns whose control — they
say — should actually be enforced and extended: namely,
no to guns, yes to drugs).

Nonsensical statements. The fact that organized crime can find other means of making money doesn’t mean we should continue to shovel money their way through the black market drug trade. Illegal logging? What does that have to do with drug legalization?
And where did this gun argument come from? Drug legalizers range across the political spectrum — some are in favor of stricter gun control, while some are in favor of looser gun control. He acts like this is some kind of “gotcha” against drug legalizers, but it’s meaningless.

So far the drug legalization agenda has been opposed
fiercely, and successfully, by the majority of our society.

No. It’s been opposed fiercely and unsuccessfully by a powerful minority who benefit from the drug war.

Yet, anti-crime policy must change. It is no longer sufficient
to say: no to drugs. We have to state an equally
vehement: no to crime.

Policy must actually change, not just experience a change of rhetoric.
He concludes with:

There is no alternative to improving both security and
health. The termination of drug control would be an
epic mistake. Equally catastrophic is the current disregard
of the security threat posed by organized crime.

??? Babble speak.
So, the good news is that we’ve got them scared. They’re having to address a whole herd of elephants in the room – the failure of prohibition, the damages of prohibition, increased public education, changing public opinion reaching political significance, and, of course, a vibrant and smart reform community.
They’re not going to give up their turf. Costa’s attempts to address the issues by simply re-framing prohibition are the standard prohibitionist response to failure. It’ll buy him some time with those who want prohibition to remain. But the desperation in his attacks (“wicked,” “perverse,” “human trafficking,” etc.), and the lack of any coherent support for what he has to say, puts some more cracks in the prohibitionist power.
The thing that we have learned so powerfully is that once our opposition is forced to engage us (and now they are), forced to actually address the problems of prohibition, we have the solid upper hand.
One more point from Costa’s introduction:

illicit drugs continue to pose a health
to humanity. That‰s why drugs are, and should
remain, controlled.

But no. The fact is that illicit drugs are not controlled. They are prohibited. That is significantly different than controlled. In fact, in many ways it is a dramatic lack of control, by turning control over to the black market.
Government likes to claim that prohibition is control, when it is not. (eg., The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy).
Legalization and regulation provides actual drug control.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition has made that point in an open letter to Costa they’ve already put together as a response to this report:

I strongly disagree with your claim in the World Drug Report 2009 that people calling for legalization of drugs are somehow endorsing less “control” over drugs than we have now.
Indeed, it is the failed system of prohibition that you endorse which strips society of the ability to regulate and control drugs, including who produces and consumes them, as well as where the profits go.

You can send your own copy of this letter to Costa at their new action page:

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.