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.





Bureaucratic politics 101: the U.S. adjusts its position on the drug treaties

INL’s Shawshank Redemption: thanks to cannabis legalization in WA and CO, the US now finds “flexibility” in the drug control treaties.

Historically, the United States was the chief architect of the prohibition-oriented international drug control regime, and among the most “hawkish” of the signatories (along with Sweden, France, Russia, Japan, and Singapore, and much of the Arab world). The U.S. did a bunch of finger-wagging at the Dutch for their relatively liberal policies. And the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement in the State Department (“INL” in Alphabet-speak, informally “Drugs and Thugs”) has long been one of the more hawkish players in internal drug-policy debates.

The treaties, on their face, require the criminalization of not only drug dealing but drug use. One of the arguments made against the tax-and-regulation approaches adopted by initiative in Colorado and Washington State was that their adoption would put the country out of compliance with its treaty obligations. There are legal loopholes: the treaties acknowledge that their obligations apply to each signatory only insofar as consistent with its domestic institutional arrangements. Since the U.S. federal government, the party bound by the treaties, lacks the constitutional power to require criminalization at the state level, it’s not clear that the actions by Colorado and Washington State voters can be said to have been illegal under international law.

Uruguay has gone further, legalizing at the national level. The Uruguayan government argues that even that is allowed by the treaties, because the treaties recite the reduction of illegal drug trafficking and the protection of public health among their stated goals, and the Uruguayan law is designed to accomplish those goals. Whatever the merits of that argument legally – personally, I don’t think it passes the giggle test, though as a policy matter I’m glad Uruguay is making the experiment and hope it succeeds – it is one that the United States could once have been counted on to scorn.

And yet, when the U.N. Commission on Narcotic drugs met in Vienna last month, and some member countries got up to criticize the Uruguayan move (which the International Narcotics Control Board, the referee set up by the treaties, promptly denounced) the U.S. had no comment on that issue.

In part that reflects changing U.S. public opinion about cannabis, and the more liberal stance of the Obama Administration compared to its predecessors. But in part it reflects the fact that INCB also blasted Colorado and Washington State, putting INL in the position of having to defend the permissibility under international law of those regimes and of the accommodating stance toward them adopted by the Justice Department. So the voters in those two states in effect forced a change in our national stance in international fora.

Here’s Ambassador William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of INL, explaining the new stance: the treaties, we are now told, are “living documents,” allowing “flexibility” in how different nations choose to meet their obligations, and we should seek a new consensus about what that means.

Obvious, once it’s happened. (It might not have happened in, say, the Romney Administration.) But, as far as I know, not predicted in advance by anyone, least of all by me.

Footnote It would be easier to take more seriously the self-appointed “Global Commission on Drug Policy” if spokespeople such as Michel Kazaktchine didn’t insist on making nonsensical claims, such as that minor drug offenses account for half of U.S. incarceration (the actual figure is more like 20% for all drug offenses) and that prohibition has failed to reduce consumption (compared to what?) and that alcohol and tobacco control via taxation and regulation have been more successful (by what measure).