Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Global Drug Policy I: Why the International Narcotics Control Board has got it wrong

This year´s report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), released in early March, is a stark reminder of how far we are from dealing in a more sensible and effective - and less harmful - way with global illicit drug-trafficking and the enormous damage it does to individuals, communities, states, and societies around the world. It reveals how urgently we need a reform of the international drug control regime.

Dedicating the report to the one-hundredth anniversary of the adoption of the International Opium Convention, the president of the INCB, Hamid Ghodse, highlights that “over the past 100 years, significant achievements have been made in international drug control”.

“The international drug control system”, he continues, “is a great example of how multilateralism can succeed in bringing benefits to humanity, preventing the abuse of drugs, as well as the harm caused by such abuse, while ensuring adequate availability of drugs for medical and scientific purposes”.

Yet the findings of the report do not justify this optimistic preamble. To the contrary, they provide a snapshot of the failure of global drug policy and the enormous collateral damage it is creating in many corners of the world.

Damaging impacts of drug policies in Central America

Just consider Central America. Following the devastating anti-regime wars in the 1980s and their difficult political resolution in the 1990s, the region saw a dramatic hike in criminal and drug-related violence, as evidenced in the INCB report. The national homicide rates of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are today among the world´s highest, and there are no indications that this situation will change in the foreseeable future.

Why does Central America have higher levels of violence today than it saw during the wars in the 1980s?  In large part, this crisis is related to the region´s prime importance as a transshipment point for Colombian/Andean cocaine destined for the world´s single-largest illicit drug consumer market, the US.

Zero tolerance UN conventions on drugs and drug-trafficking make cocaine an illicit commodity. As a result, it is largely unregulated. Yet if cocaine were instead more effectively regulated, it would not wreak the kind of havoc it currently does in Central America.

It is true, as Hamid Ghodse writes, that “the diversion of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances [from legal sources to illicit channels] has been almost completely eliminated at the international level”. Governments and the chemical and pharmaceutical industry are today tightly regulated on what they can and cannot do with substances ´scheduled´ by the UN conventions.

Getting the causality right in drug control policy

But it is inconsequential to say that the problem is that “drug traffickers and illicit drug users now resort primarily to illicitly manufactured drugs”. This kind of argument confuses the causality.

It is the international drug control regime that creates the incentives and opportunities for drug-trafficking outfits to make huge gains and exploit the addictions, desires and vulnerabilities of millions of illicit drug users around the world.

It is a good thing that governments and corporations are dealing less in harmful substances than they did fifty or one-hundred years ago. But it is patently not good that the international drug control regime is creating huge economic incentives for all sorts of actors – including drug and war lords, rebels, terrorists, police officers, bankers, and politicians – to engage in what has become the most lucrative illegal business on earth.

The situation is deeply ironic. The international drug control regime, which was established to protect individuals and communities from the harm caused by drugs, in fact actually promotes destabilization, violence and human suffering in fragile source and transit countries and increases the economic and social costs of dealing with drugs worldwide.

Keep an eye on the Governance and Development blog for more on Global Drug Policy.


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