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Legal Grass isn’t Greener: UN Against Decriminalization

weber-logo1The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the success of international controls on illicit drugs has created a monster:  a criminal market that actually offsets the benefits of drug control. 

In a paper prepared for this week’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, the Executive Director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, says while controls have limited the number of people taking illicit drugs to a small fraction of the world’s population, that success has created “a criminal market of staggering proportions”. 

In short, it’s a scary version of Economics 101: a limited, or controlled supply for a demanded product has increased the price to such a level that organized crime finds it a very profitable business; so profitable that Maria Costa says the crime associated with the drug trade is “providing strong evidence to pro-drug lobbyists . . . that the cure is worse than the disease and that drug legalization is the solution.”

While “this would be an historical mistake”, according to Maria Costa, you might have a hard time telling that to the citizens of Warez, Mexico; just across the US border from El Paso, Texas. 

There, Associated Press reports nearly 3,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in 2007, 6,000 in 2008, and another 1,000 in the first eight weeks of this year.  That’s Warez, a city of 1.5 million people, with the emphasis on “war”.

Despite staggering statistics however, Maria Costa argues drug control and crime prevention don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“There is no need to choose between health (drug control) and security (crime prevention)”.  He adds, however that “because drug trafficking enriches criminals, destroys communities and even threatens nations, it has to be dealt with urgently and forcefully”. 

In his paper, Organized Crime and its Threat to Security, Maria Costa calls for policy change “against crime, not in favour of drugs”, and focuses on three requirements:  The Need for an Integrated Strategy, The Need for Community Resistance and The Need for Shared Commitment.

For example, Maria Costa says crime control measures must integrate all elements of the drug chain, including supply, trade and demand.  So far, he says governments have mostly pursued disjointed interventions that have displaced the problem from one country or substance to another. 

He adds countries need to re-integrate the marginalized (unemployed, illiterate, addicted) segments of society and says existing legal measures must be more adequately applied.  He points out, for example, that while criminals use the internet to supply drugs, arms, people and their organs, international calls for agreements against cyber-crime remain un-answered.

Canada’s Michel Perron, the CEO of the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and the only non-government official addressing this week’s Commission, says despite Maria Costa’s recommendations, he’s under no illusion that international drug policy is about to undergo massive change.  He says global discussion on drug policy is “hyper-politicized”, adding “it becomes very difficult to make changes that are seen to be politically acceptable across the different countries.”

For example, while U.S. officials tell Mexico to get control of its powerful drug cartels, Mexico cites America’s demand for drugs as the root of the problem.  And while countries argue, negotiate or posture organizations like Canada’s Beyond Prohibition Coalition make headway, pushing for legalized drugs, or what they call “more effective harm reduction initiatives”.

“Why should we leave the regulation of these drugs to criminal gangs and the black market?” asks researcher Dr. Susan Boyd.  “We would fare better as a society regulating them ourselves.”

For example, the Beyond Prohibition website argues that in 2002, 27% of deaths linked to various conditions were related to smoking or booze (legal drugs) while drug-induced mortality represented only 1.4% of the deaths.  While the inference seems obvious (illicit drugs are less harmful than legal drugs), there’s no mention how deaths linked to drugs would increase should they be legalized. 

Maria Costa, meanwhile, says legal grass isn’t greener and repeats decriminalizing drugs is not the answer, controlling the criminal element is.

In his address to the UN (emphasizing the need for more prevention and treatment of drugs), Canada’s Perron seems to agree.  “The issue is not so much a drug-free world as a world free of drug harm,” he says.

By way of summary, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports that in 2006, 159 million people smoked pot, 16 million used opium or heroin, 14 million used cocaine and 9 million used Ecstasy.  While the numbers aren’t huge, one thing is clear:  whether you’re for or against illegal drugs, 5% of the world’s population are using . . . and causing a hell of a lot of crime.

Citizens in Warez, Mexico hope world leaders will do something about it.




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