The (Drug Control) Empire Strikes Back

By and large, I’m not a fan of the work of the (self-appointed) Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Commission’s latest report draws strong conclusions:

Ultimately the most effective way to reduce the extensive harms of the global drug prohibition regime and advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation.

Unfortunately, those strong conclusions aren’t backed with strong evidence or strong argument. Calling your drug laws “regulations” or “taxes” rather than “prohibitions” doesn’t make them any easier to enforce. The claim that it’s possible to “get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation” has, for now, to be filed under “Interesting, If True.” Experiments with legal supply of “cannabis, coca leaf, and certain novel psychoactive substances” are a good idea, but of course most of the action in the “war on drugs” is in cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine; the drugs we would most like to legalize in terms of reducing the costs of prohibition would be among the hardest to legalize successfully in terms of public health. (We always have the bad example of  alcohol – which causes more violence, more health damage, and more addiction than all the illicit drugs combined – staring down at us.)

That said, the frustration with current drug policies that motivates the Global Commission is entirely justified. Changing the goals and means of the current international drug control regime in the direction of less violence and less incarceration is harder and more complex than denouncing the drug war in abstract terms, and less dramatic than legalization, but it’s necessary and important work, and someone who reads the Commission’s reports but doubts the existence of a regulatory utopia might be motivated to engage in that work.

Naturally, the international drug control empire is going to fight back. Yuri Fedotov, one of its Grand Pooh-Bahs as Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (serving, one might note, as the representative of a government with an especially stupid, vicious, and unsuccessful set of drug policies), says of the Commission report that “It’s very hard to reconcile these recommendations with the major provisions of drug-control conventions.” That, of course, is true.

But what Fedotov doesn’t say, and which is also true, is that it’s very hard to reconcile the premises of the drug-control conventions with observable reality. The Single Convention was written in 1961, before anyone knew about neurotransmitters and receptors. Why should we allow the outdated concepts embodied in that treaty and its successors – treating drugs with abuse potential as evil rather than risky, and assuming that the answer to illicit markets is always more and more law enforcement - to continue to dominate our thinking?

It’s too bad that many of the folks who are willing to say that the existing international drug control regime is based on fantasy insist on pushing the equal and opposite fantasy that there’s a magic wand called “regulation” that we could wave at the problem to bring it under control. But the first step in fixing something is noticing that it’s broken and the Global Commission has at least taken that first step. UNODC and its sister agency INCB, and their allies around the world, are still – if you’ll pardon the use of a technical term – in denial.

 

 

 

 

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

One thought on “The (Drug Control) Empire Strikes Back”

  1. The directors of UN agencies and offices don't serve as representatives of their governments. When I joined the Council of Europe as a very junior official, I had to swear to the Secretary-General in person (may have been the Deputy SG, I can't remember) not to take instructions from any government. UN professional ethics are the same. Some cynicism is in order of course, especially when the appointment is, as the case of Mr. Fedotov, of a career national diplomat, from a Security Council member to boot and with no special qualifications in the subject.

    Just spotted this in Wikipedia: “Approximately 90% of the Office’s funding comes from voluntary contributions, mainly from governments.” If an agency runs on a regular budget, this roughly reflects the views of all the member states. Voluntary contributions reflect the views of the most gung-ho, so they should not be the bulk of the income of a policy agency. Even if he were not a drug warrior himself, Mr. Fedotov would have a very strong institutional incentive to pander to the clique. The whole setup cries out for thorough reform.

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