It was exactly 50 years ago that the United Nations adopted the first international treaty to prohibit some drugs – particularly drugs used by non-Europeans such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin. The 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs played a major role in creating the legal basis and institutional framework for the global prohibition regime. The logic of the system was simple: any use of the drugs listed, unless sanctioned for medical or scientific purposes, would be deemed ‘abuse’ and thus illegal. As a result of this convention, the unsanctioned production and trafficking of these drugs became a crime in all member states of the UN.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Single Convention, and any person who believes in transparent, democratic policy making might assume that this should be a year of reflection for the UN. However, it seems only a few NGOs are calling for the evaluation of the social, economic, public health and human rights impacts of this drug convention. At the end of March, delegates of governments from around the globe will gather at the 54th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, but the question of evaluation was not even put on the agenda of the meeting. Why is this? Is it because there is apparently no question that our policies, based on the drug conventions and driven by a punitive approach, are so successful that nobody can question their effectiveness? The answer is no: you would be hard-pressed to find any public policy so frequently criticized by both professionals and civil society alike other than drug policy.
The Vienna Declaration, an international NGO initiative, calls for a substantial reform of drug policies. The Declaration points out that punitive drug policies have several unintended consequences: they fuel the global HIV epidemic, undermine public health systems, result in a crisis for criminal justice systems, lead to severe human rights violations and create a massive illicit market worth an estimated annual value of almost 400 billion USD. The Declaration calls on governments to “undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies”. Ex-presidents of a region hit especially hard by the global war on drugs, Latin-America, joined in the Latin-American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy to initiate “wide-ranging debates about the issue, hearing specialists, analyzing alternatives and formulating suggestions”.
You may feel ambiguous about the proposed alternatives of drug prohibition, or even be concerned about the possibility of full-scale legalization. We share your concerns: Eastern Europeans have learned in the past that caution is recommended regarding simplistic solutions to complex problems. But think about it: can you fathom a simpler answer to the drug phenomena than total prohibition itself? And if governments are so committed to drug prohibition and so sure about the benefits of it, why do they shy away from evaluations; why do they refuse to launch an open debate on the possible alternatives? Why is it still blasphemy and stigmatizing if a scientist points out that currently illegal drugs are no more dangerous than those legally regulated by the government, such as tobacco or alcohol? (An example is the sad story of Prof. David Nutt, the drug advisor of the British government sacked for telling the truth.)
“But don’t be too pessimistic,” you may say, “surely there are people who benefit from global drug prohibition.” You are right, there are such people, and they should be grateful to the UN for keeping drugs illegal. For instance, according to the White House, 60 percent of the income of the Mexican drug cartels is coming from marijuana trafficking to the US. It is not surprising that one of the most wanted Mexican drug lords, El Chapo Guzman said to his captains: “I couldn't have gotten so stinking rich without George Bush, George Bush Jr., Ronald Reagan, even El Presidente Obama, none of them have the cajones to stand up to all the big money that wants to keep this stuff illegal.” How else could they buy their American weapons and fight a war against the government – a war that has resulted in more than 30,000 deaths since President Calderon declared it in 2006?
There are other groups who should be grateful for prohibition: the Taliban for example, who tax the lucrative opium market in Afghanistan, a country that produces 90 percent of the global heroin supply. If not for illegal opium, how could they buy their modern weapons and maintain their civil war against the allied forces? Russian criminals are also grateful for drug prohibition: they get rich from the money of heroin users and they do not care if their clients contract HIV because their government refuses to provide them with clean needles and syringes. Nor do the drug kingpins in the US care that the “war on drugs” in their country has generated the largest prison industrial complex in the world, with an estimated 2.3 million people behind bars, and a significant proportion of them for small scale drug offenses. These criminals, like their predecessors who benefited from the prohibition of alcohol in the US in the 1920’s, are making fortunes from the black market on drugs and they are emboldened by the use of violence. The only thing they really fear is not imprisonment, but losing their profits forever. The economic law of supply and demand is stronger than any criminal laws. If we really want to put an end to the heyday of drug lords, then we need a transparent, science-based evaluation of drug control policies by both the individual national governments and by the United Nations alike.
Posted by Peter Sarosi