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To my surprise, Mr. Antonio-Maria Costa, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime did not address government delegates in his opening speech at the 51st session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), but rather his NGO critics. He claimed there are significant achievements of the UN drug control system we can be proud of, but many people “intentionally fail to recognize” them, even if these achievements are supported by “hard facts”. As one of the NGO advocates labeled by Mr. Costa a member of a “vocal minority” and a “rowdy pro-drug” crowd, I have mixed feelings about his remarks. First of all, I am pleased that our voice is heard so “loud and clear” by the top ranking official of the UN drug control system that he felt an impregnable urge to put these criticisms on the agenda of the opening session of the largest drug policy decision making forum of the globe.
It also came as a positive surprise that he stressed the importance of human rights in the context of drug policies and indirectly (and controversially) called for the abolishment of death penalty for drug crimes. We can celebrate an unprecedented NGO participation at the CND this year, I'm glad we had the opportunity to make a statement at the thematic debate on behalf of the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network and the HCLU (). This would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago. Until this year many people would also have called it a wishful thinking that the annual report of INCB is calling for the moderation of criminal sanctions against drug users, mentioning HIV/AIDS 54 times and discussing harm reduction in a positive context. Times are changing and there is a growing awareness of the important role civil society plays in the field of drug policy.
Notwithstanding, I think Mr. Costa’s attitude to his NGO critics was arrogant in general, and it was especially so at the NGO forum meeting under the slogan “Not so silent partners” at the CND. He has to strike a rational tone when answering simple questions like the one Frederick Polak, a respected Dutch psychiatrist asked at the meeting of the Vienna NGO Forum: “If prohibition is the only way to contain the drug problem, how do you explain that the prevalence of cannabis use is lower or similar in the Netherlands than in many neighboring countries?” This question is a very crucial one, because the hypothesis behind drug prohibition is that if we repress the supply of drugs the demand will automatically be reduced. If this theory works, than we would have seen a major difference between use prevalence trends in countries where cannabis is available in shops and in countries where distributors are sent to jail, if these countries have similar social, economic and cultural backgrounds. But this is not the case: according to statistics cannabis use patterns remained relatively stable in the Netherlands and did not hit the sky as a result of legal availability. In his speech Mr. Costa emphasized that he doesn’t need NGOs as “silent partners” and called for challenging his views.
Well, Dr. Polak did challenge him. But instead of giving an honest and definite answer, the global drug czar used a false argumentation which is often called the Red Herring. The name of this fallacy comes from the sport of fox hunting in which a dried, smoked herring, which is red in color, is dragged across the trail of the fox to throw the hounds off the scent. In the science of logics, this means a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. Mr. Costa talked about the recent limitations of the number of coffee shops, citing incorrect data and references to divert attention from the very fact that the coffee shop system has been working since 1976 and the prevalence of cannabis use among young people is lower in the Netherlands than in many countries with a restrictive criminal policy. It is true that the Dutch government – under the pressure of other countries and the UN itself, not based on evidence – made some controversial steps to reduce the number of coffee shops (without closing them all), but this proves nothing. Decisions made by politicians should be based on evidence, but we shouldn’t use political decisions as evidence. Unfortunately, the UN drug control system works in the opposite way: it has its own dogmas based on political decisions that overwrite science and even human rights. When Dr. Polak complained about this, Mr. Costa lost his temper and grudgingly refused to engage in further discussions, giving the floor to another speaker, while Polak was approached by a security guard.
Some NGO representatives on the other end gave a standing ovation to Mr. Costa when he left the hall (you can see the same people applauding his anti-coffee shop statements in our video). The celebration was initiated by the lapdogs of the U.S. and Swedish governments of course, like the European Cities Against Drugs, an international organization funded by the Swedish government to promote its drug policy, praising “treatment” services in Russia notorious for chaining and humiliating drug users, or SUNDIAL, an “NGO” led by the former speechwriter of the American drug czar. Among them we found the representative of the Partnership for a Drug Free America as well, who advocates the idea that we can solve drug problems by forcing schoolchildren to piss to a flask, despite the growing evidence that school drug testing doesn’t work at all.
Lifetime prevalence of marijuana use (ages 12+)
Past month prevalence of marijuana use (ages 12+)
Lifetime prevalence of heroin use (ages 12+)
Incarceration Rate per 100,000 population
Per capita spending on criminal justice system (in Euros)
Homicide rate per 100,000 population
Source: Drug War Facts
It is unacceptable for a high ranking UN official to use an offensive language with professionals raising apprehensive, reasonable arguments against the current drug control regime, as Mr. Costa did in his opening remarks. We cannot speak about an open, decent dialogue if Mr. Costa from the position of power questions the sincere commitment and good intentions of his opponents calling them by names like “lunatics” and stigmatizing them as “pro-drug”. As a UN official with a tax-free salary paid by tax payers of the member states, he is responsible for providing faithful accounting to civil society about the past 10 years of the drug control regime under his reign as a global drug czar. And first of all, he has to show respect for those people who work in the field to reduce the harms created by drug abuse and abusive drug policies, from very limited resources, for low salaries and restrained by the barriers of stigma and discrimination. Even if they believe in legalization, or even if they are drug users themselves, because drug users are also people with inalienable human rights and dignity, a value constituting the very core of the UN system. Period.
By Peter Sarosi