UN Report Fails to Question Assumptions of War on Drugs

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The annual United Nations’ World Drug Report is a useful document for identifying broad trends in the war on drugs. It is even more useful as an example of why global prohibition of narcotics will never succeed.

Every year, the signature report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlights some interesting patterns in terms of drug cultivation, consumption and interdiction. With a wealth of graphs, charts and maps, the 2011 report sets out several key trends, the most important of which may be the growing popularity of synthetic drugs, and the decline in coca cultivation in the Andes.

But, as InSight Crime has pointed out, many of the statistics cited by the UN must be handled with care. The UN collects much of its information from governments, which may have political incentives to provide selective data, or may lack the resources to keep proper records. In addition, the UN’s use of satellite imagery to monitor opium and coca cultivations must be interpreted as providing low-end estimates of the illicit crops grown in a given country. For more evidence of why the UNODC statistics should be treated as approximations, rather than solid data, we need only compare UNODC figures with those kept by the U.S. State Department. The U.S. and UN often have serious discrepancies when measuring drug production and crop cultivation. U.S. estimates for Colombian drug production are typically 60 percent higher than UN estimates; for Peru, UN estimates are on average 45 percent greater than those of the U.S., according to WOLA.

Even given the uneven data that the UNODC must work with, the World Drug Report is still a useful document for drawing out overall comparisons of global drug trends. But in some ways, the information in the report is less interesting than the broader analysis which is left out. Year after year, the reports fail to discuss whether the UN’s “zero tolerance” approach to global drug policy is working. The studies provide plenty of charts and graphs, but little reflection on the obvious and well-documented failures of global drug prohibition. The assumptions at the core of the UNODC reports are never questioned. Reading the report can feel like listening to someone describe shadows on the wall; the UN examines the effects of drug control policies, but never their root causes.

A recent report by a 19-person panel, known as the Global Commission on Drug Policy, did question the assumptions underlying the global drug policy espoused by the UN, and won attention by calling for the decriminalization of all drugs. The assumptions it examined were: first, drug production must be controlled at the source. Second, the world must set international standards to be universally enforced; states who do not conform must be punished. Third, U.S. and European interests must predominate in determining which substances should be defined as legal and which illegal.

The latter is probably the assumption most in need of revisiting by the UN, and is also the one least likely to be questioned. As the 2011 UNODC report points out, prescription drugs are outstripping cocaine and heroin to become the biggest cause of fatal overdoses in the U.S. In many parts of the country, these legal drugs are thought to be driving up crime rates. The fact that brand names like Oxycontin and Percocet are still considered legitimate, despite the increase in awareness of the dangers they pose, shows how subjective the norms are when determining which drugs are considered legitimate versus those treated as deviant. While the international community usually cites health and security concerns as a reason for determining which drugs should be banned, the treatment of prescription drugs is an example of how powerful business interests, like the U.S. pharmaceutical lobby, have a lot to do with defining which drugs are seen as acceptable.

At the core of the UN’s drug control policy is the assumption that U.S. and Europe have already correctly identified which drugs should be prohibited across the globe. A more flexible approach might have allowed some coca use in Latin America, or cannabis use in states that opted to treat the plant as no more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. Instead, as shown in each year’s UNODC report, the UN is promoting a damaging strategy of global prohibition, standardized across all nations.

Drugs are tough to ban: they can be easily smuggled across borders, and, more importantly, neither consumers nor producers have much interest in seeing the activity eliminated completely. The prohibition of drugs, by driving up profit margins, gives traffickers a big incentive to continue in the business.

This year has already seen at least one report, from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which attempts to revisit some of the assumptions guiding UN strategy. But without a serious paradigm shift within the international community, the organization is unlikely to re-examine their policies anytime soon. The shadows on the wall are too distracting.

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