The Inflluence of the U.S. on UN Drug Policy

Editor's note: What follows is in three parts:

  1. A synthesis of three papers on the UN's and the US's roles in establishing and maintaining a world-wide policy of prohibition against the sale and use of narcotic and psycotropic drugs. 
  2. A brief summary of the recommendations of the 2009 UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. 
  3. The Executive Director's Preface to the UN World Drug Report 2009. 
I. The three papers summarized and combined into The Foundations: U.N. Drug Control Conventions are:
  1. Breaking the Impasse: (2003)(a two-part paper)

    Polarisation & Paralysis in UN Drug Control  By: Martin Jelsma, Co-ordinator, Transnational Institute Drugs & Democracy Programme

  2. Habits of a Hegemon: The United States and the Future of the Global drug Prohibition Regime , By: David Bewley-Taylor, lecturer at the Department of American Studies of the University of Wales Swansea, UK; he is the author of The United States and Internation-al Drug Control, 1909-1997, Continuum, London, 2001 
  3. The UN Drug Control Debate: Current Dilemmas and Prospects for 2008
By: Martin Jelsma, Co-ordinator, Transnational Institute Drugs & Democracy Programme

Presented at the 48th ICAA Conference on Dependencies, Science, Politics and the Practitioners

Budapest, 24 October 2005

The Foundations: UN Drug Control Conventions

Three United Nations drug control conventions (or treaties) are the cornerstones of the international drug control system:
  1. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 as amended by the 1972 Protocol,
  2. The Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971
  3. The United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988

Policy Review Process:

I1998 a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) was held to evaluate the effectiveness of the current repressive drug control regime. Mexico was the country that originally called for the 1998 UNGASS, aspiring to convene a forum for in-depth evaluation of global drug control policy. During the preparatory phase at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), an annual council of UN member nations, however, the effort at evaluation backfired and the UNGASS was reoriented towards an affirmation of prohibitionism, despite the obvious failure of current drug control policies. The General Assembly, in their consequent political declaration, gave the UN International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) the mandate " develop strategies with a view to eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008". 

A five-year review was held in 2003. (The two papers from 2003 were written in preparation for that review) 
A ten-year, world-wide review was held during 2008. (The third paper was written in 2005 in anticipation of that review.)
Following the 2008 review, a new Political Declaration was issued by the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), in March, 2009. 
(A summary of the "Action Plan" of this 2009 Declaration is at the end of this post. As you will see, it is more of the same.)

Policy Trends

These combined papers first give an overview of the main policy trends over the past decade and then ... more detail about how the various UN entities are operating within that changing policy environment, with emphasis on UNODC as the lead agency.

Drug useAcross the globe, a clear trend is underway towards acceptance of harm reduction measures.  ... policy shifts (are) taking place in the direction of decriminalisation..., needle exchange and substitution programmes, expansion of drug consumption rooms and heroin prescription, and incorporation of harm reduction language in policy documents. 

CultivationThere is acknowledgement that forced eradication (of crops) is not justifiable and reductions not sustainable as long as alternative livelihoods are not secured, and (until) the issue of illicit crops is placed the broader context of conflict resolution, human rights and development. However, on the ground an escalation of repressive approaches seems to be the reality.

Interdiction: the law enforcement side of supply reduction efforts seems to be simply continuing without anyone really bothering about its effectiveness. Seizures, judicial cooperation to disrupt trafficking rings, precursor and money laundering control operations, all just go on unbothered by any serious evaluations about their real impact in terms of disrupting the illicit market. (There is) hardly any documented example that those efforts have ever led to scarcity on the international drug markets which they are supposed to do. The only trend visible, especially within law enforcement agencies themselves, is a growing acknowledgement and frustration about the lack of impact on the market, slowly shifting policy priorities in this field away from drug supply reduction towards reduction of drug-related crime where impact of certain best practices has been demonstrated.

Two Paradigms: Zero Tolerance & Prohibition vs. Harm Reduction

In all these areas, a paradigmatic distinction is evident  between:
  1. Those who believe in the possibility of a drug-free world and for whom zero-tolerance towards illicit drugs can be the only answer, using prohibition and more repressive means. Among the fervent defenders of the prohibitionist regime considerable differences exist as to the cultural and political roots of their zero-tolerance position. 
    1. The United States is the principle force promoting a global prohibitionist regime, having a zero-tolerance position rooted in Christian fundamentalism and an aspiration to world leadership, leading it to blur the drugs issue with other foreign policy and security agendas.
    2. Sweden is primarily rooted in a social democratic tradition where the state is supposed to protect its citizenry against any threat perceived to undermine the fabric of society. 
    3. In predominantly Moslem countries, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the accompanying strong religious laws against any drugs, including alcohol, has resulted in stronger opposition from those states to any deviation from zero-tolerance within the CND. 
    4. Several African cannabis-producing countries are taking strong positions because they aspire to be included in special preferential trade mechanisms and developmental aid schemes tied to drug control objectives already in place for several Latin American (such as Columbia, Mexico) and Asian countries. 
  2. Those who favor harm reduction, trying to find the most pragmatic and humane ways to (mitigate) the reality of continuing drug use and a supply market that has proven to be resistant to policy interventions.  Its centre of gravity is in Europe. Harm Reduction has now become the basis for a rational and pragmatic drug policy in almost every European Union country, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Brazil.  Decriminalisation of consumption, leniency in law enforcement towards cannabis and towards possession of other drugs for personal use, and needle exchange programmes are commonplace nowadays. The more controversial steps further along the path of leniency, like the 'coffee shops', heroin maintenance programmes, XTC testing, etc, have received acceptance beyond the pioneer countries, Switzerland and the Nether-lands, and are under consideration or in preparation in several other countries. Europe has advanced rapidly on these issues. In several countries, debates are now taking place that openly question the wisdom of prohibition of cannabis products and open up the discussion to look at legal models for the regulation of that illicit market.
One can observe a clear paradigm shift from zero-tolerance to the pragmatism of harm reduction. 

Recognition of the Failure of Past "Zero Tolerance"Efforts

(Both sets of proponents) start from a shared recognition that all combined efforts thus far - eradication, crop substitution, drug seizures, demand reduction - have failed in terms of global impact.  There is barely any reduction in either supply of or demand for illicit drugs. 
  1. Zero tolerance advocates maintain that the 'medicine' has not worked (because) not enough has been applied and that the logical response should be to apply a stronger dose: re-affirm political commitment, oppose any tolerance, close ranks behind a 'get-serious' approach, set deadlines and don't be afraid to dirty your hands to achieve concrete results, "A drug free world - We can do it!" (The slogan of the 1998 UNGASS)
  2. Harm reduction advocates conclude that this recognition should lead to a global evaluation: re-assessment of the applied principles, opening of the debate, more space for experimentation with other approaches and a focus on more realistic aims in terms of reducing drug-related harms. 

The (declining) numbers of zero-tolerance proponents, in view of the failure to... realize their dream of a drug-free world, tend to become more aggressive in their methods, resorting to radical approaches to production (spraying crops, military eradication units, opium bans etc), merging the fight against drugs, crime and terror, and introducing radical measures to curb drug use such as mass incarceration and random drug testing.

 The growing numbers of proponents of pragmatic approaches of harm reduction run into two kinds of obstacles: 
  1. Convincing politicians of the need for huge investments in development and health care which will only gradually and slowly reduce drug-related problems.  (Politicians) tend to prefer the illusion of quick-impact measures and prefer to talk in terms of 'solutions' for problems rather than managing or containing them. 
  2. Finding room to manoeuvre for pragmatic policy trends and experiments in harm reduction, which is limited by legal obstacles in national legislation or in international treaties (UN conventions), obstacles that are not easily removed.          (Editor's note: US law and regulation dictates, "The Director of National Drug Control Policy shall ensure that: no Federal funds appropriated to the Office of National Drug Control Policy shall be expended for any study or contract relating to the legalization (for a medical use or any other use) of a substance listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812) and take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance (in any form) that-(A) is listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812); and(B) has not been approved for use for medical purposes by the Food and Drug Administration;"

Paralysis at the UN

At the UN level, polarisation between these two positions has caused paralysis. 
  1. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (which is the operating Secretariat for UN drug policy) has actively promoted the re-affirm discourse, suffocating attempts to open up the debate, censoring critical remarks in its own publications, trumpeting doubtful success stories, and punishing dissenting views among its staff.
  2. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has maintained a very strict interpretation of the UN conventions and regularly appears to overstep its limited mandate by passing judgement on sovereign states whose policies take a slightly different direction and exercising pressure on them to get back in line. 
  3.  In the  UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) (which is an annual meeting of nations), the more liberal-minded countries are taking a low profile. Careful not to fuel tensions that might endanger carefully conquered ground for experimentation, they opt to keep the debate as general and diplomatic as possible, avoiding open controversy in the CND over their policy directions.

 Merging Drugs and Crime (and Sidelining the Wolrld Health Organization, WHO)

 Another concern about the direction UNODC is it's merging of the drugs, crime and terrorism agendas.In his first address to the staff, Antonio Maria Costa (who became Executive Director in 2002, after a scandal involving the previous director) emphasized the connections between "drugs, crime and terrorism, the evils of our time". By 1998, steps had already been taken to bring together the UN Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) and the Centre for International Crime Prevention (CICP) under a single umbrella. Mr Costa simplified the name of the merged agencies into what is now known as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)....

No one will deny the relationship between the drugs and crime issues. However,...the current trend risks to over-emphasize the drugs-crime connection at the expense of other connections. The drugs issue ... is as closely related to health or development as it is to crime. The priority given now to the relationship between drugs and crime appears to be pushing UNODC drug control policy to focus more on a law enforcement approach than one geared toward health or development.... Just try to imagine what the difference would be if the UN would decide to merge UNDCP with WHO and merge the CND with the World Health Assembly....

Agencies such as WHO ... seem to be more and more marginalised in the broader UN drug policy debate. The WHO's Department of Substance Abuse, the section specializing in drugs issues, has been nearly disbanded. It was merged in 2000 with the Department of Mental Health...  The WHO has been at odds with the established drug control system and the illicit-licit distinction from the beginning. Its mandate to look at impacts on public health led it to give more weight to alcohol and tobacco abuse. 

During the 1990s the WHO drugs programme's evidence-based approaches to drug consumption led to a conflict of interest with the drug control paradigm dominant in the UN drug organizations, and the WHO specialists basically 'lost the battle'. Reports from the Expert Committee and the outcomes of WHO research projects on cocaine, cannabis and heroin prescription, led to serious tensions with the UN drug angencies. 

After a WHO report concluded that the "use of coca leaves appears to have no negative health effects," the US government accused the WHO of "undermining the efforts of the international community to stamp out the illegal cultivation and production of coca". 

The US delegation to the World Health Assembly also threatened that "If WHO activities relating to drugs fail to reinforce proven drug-control approaches, funds for the relevant programs should be curtailed."

Down-grading the role of WHO in UN drug policy decision making at a time UNODC tends to concentrate more on the links between drugs, crime and terrorism, is ...highly problematic.  Three concrete examples are: 
  1. WHO recently (2005) included methadone and buprenorphine in its list of essential medicines, and advised that their current scheduling under the 1961 and 1971 Conventions needs to be reviewed because it raises contradictions. No one (in the UN) raises the obvious question that it's weird that WHO essential medicines are included in outdated schedules that lack any logic or consistency. 
  2. The WHO Expert Committee also recommended to re-schedule THC, the active ingredient of cannabis, from its nonsensical inclusion in the list of severely controlled substances under the 1971 convention, but that recommendation did not even reach the CND. 
  3. WHO produced a thorough paper on the effectiveness of needle exchange programmes for HIV prevention... for the CND session this year (2005), but the paper never got an official status for the CND deliberations, so was not taken seriously into account...UNODC was forced to abandon open support for such programmes.
Obstacles in the Way of Change and the Role of the United States

The UN Conventions still stand as a major obstacle to the introduction of pragmatic policies at a national level. The mandate for the INCB and UNODC is to derive their wisdom from the conventions, not from reality, or only as far as the reality is compatible with the conventions. 

While the tolerant approaches adopted by a number of nations have undoubtedly weakened the current regime, it seems that further progress will only be possible either through some sort of change in or defection from the regime. If the countries committed to ... pragmatic solutions want to advance any further, it is becoming urgent that they begin to question openly the straitjacket of the conventions. 

The obstacle to any change in the direction of the regime is the consensu-driven functioning of the CND. With the current polarization, it is difficult to imagine that any agreement could be reached. Any such move would certainly encounter considerable hostility.  An important force sustaining such consensus is the United States. As its staunchest defender, it is the US that maintains the regime's disciplinary framework. Pressure from Washington has long supplemented the moral legitimacy bestowed upon the doctrine of prohibition by the UN.  This has produced a formidable source of inertia. Through the strategy of issue linkage, the US has certainly exploited its hegemonic status for the defence of the global drug prohibition regime it has worked so hard to construct.  

This UN-US alliance has made it difficult for nations to deviate significantly, or even to discuss deviation, from the doctrine of prohibition. 
  1.  The US has used certification as an important vehicle for economic persuasion
  2. This process has also been strengthened in recent years by Washington's efforts to conflate its war on drugs with the transnational fight against organised crime. Such a move increases the reputational implications of deviation by any nation. 
  3. US moves to fuse the drug war with the new war on terror makes movement away from the prohibitive regime potentially damaging for a nation's international image.
Clearly, when considering any change at the UN level, it would be unwise for nations to ignore the US's habitual use of hegemonic power to protect global drug prohibition. Beyond proselytization, maintenance of the regime is important because it helps Washington to legitimise both domestic policies and many overseas activities. 

The 2005 CND debate about HIV/AIDS prevention in the context of drug control provides an example of the U.S.'s power. There was a massivedemonstration of support for harm reduction from a (large) majority of member states, including the full EU and Latin American and Caribbean blocks, Canada, Australia, and most Asian and African nations. In fact, the only country siding with the US in this debate was Japan, and ...on specific topics ..., Malaysia and Russia.  (Because of blockage by the U.S.), no consensus could be reached and the UNODC did not get a mandate to support such policies.           
This is a clear example of the fact that the US has a stranglehold on the office that is totally unacceptable. The only reason UNODC is pushed in this direction is because they need to secure continued US funding. This contradicts the governing role the CND has been given within the UN system and it contradicts the spirit of multilateralism that was behind the founding of a UN drug control agency.

The Search for Pragmatic Options

What, then, are the options available to nations wishing to create more policy space at a national level? Moves to initiate regime change within the confines of international law are problematic.

Therefore, nations (may decide to) withdraw.., whether legitimately or otherwise in terms of international law, from one or all of the drug control conventions. Like other moves to deviate from prohibition, this would undoubtedly provoke a hostile response from the US.

Articles within all the treaties allow parties to withdraw consent by depositing in writing a denunciation with the Secretary-General.  A party who chooses to denounce the treaties would have to be prepared to face not only US-UN condemnation but also the threat or application of some form of US sanctions. As Peter Andreas notes, "Open defection from the drug prohibition regime would...have severe consequences: it would place the defecting country in the category of a pariah 'narcostate,' generate material repercussions in the form of economic sanctions and aid cut offs, and damage the country's moral standing in the international community." This would create different problems for different states. For economic reasons, so-called developed nations are better placed to resist US-UN pressure than those from the so-called developing world.

If a credible group of parties from Europe, Australasia and Latin America ... were to combine to denounce one or all of the treaties, the US-UN axis may lose much of its potential influence. The 'denouncers' may find safety in numbers.

Another strategy would be for parties to simply ignore the treaties. In this way, they could institute any policies deemed to be necessary at the national level, including for example the legalisation of cannabis and the introduction of a licensing system for domestic producers. This option has been gaining support amongst many supporters of harm reduction for some time.

Disregarding the treaties, however, raises serious issues beyond the realm of drug control. The possibility of nations unilaterally ignoring drug control treaty commitments could threaten the stability of the entire treaty system. As a consequence, states may be wary of opting out. This 'collective responsibility for global order' argument would, of course, be more persuasive were it not for the cafeteria approach to international law adopted by world's only Superpower, the United States. T

The US withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty and repudiation of the ABM treaty had already gone a long way to threaten the treaty system before its recent announcement to 'unsign' itself from the convention to establish an International Criminal Court. In facilitating this unprecedented move, the Bush II administration ... asserted that the US is also no longer bound by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Under the 1969 convention, a country that has signed a treaty cannot act to defeat the purpose of that treaty, even if it doesn't intend to ratify it. Having set this precedent on the basis of national interest, the United States will surely find itself in an awkward position vis- à-vis its opposition to any defection from the drug control treaties on similar grounds.

UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs

Report on the fifty-second session

(14 March 2008 and

11-20 March 2009)

(The member nations):

Reaffirm that the ultimate goal of both demand and supply reduction strategies and sustainable development strategies is to minimize and eventually eliminate the availability and use of illicit drugs and psychotropic substances 

Assert that ... the three international drug control conventions ...remain the cornerstone of the international drug control system, 

Decide to establish 2019 as a target date for States to eliminate or reduce significantly and measurably:
(a) The illicit cultivation of opium poppy, coca bush and cannabis plant;
(b) The illicit demand for narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances; and
drug-related health and social risks;
(c) The illicit production, manufacture, marketing and distribution of, and
trafficking in, psychotropic substances, including synthetic drugs;
(d) The diversion of and illicit trafficking in precursors;
(e) Money-laundering related to illicit drugs;

(Editor's Note: Recall from the beginning of this post that, in 1998, "The UN General Assembly Special Session, in their ... political declaration, gave the UN International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) the mandate " develop strategies with a view to eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008".)

Plan of Action


Demand reduction: The commitments made by Member States in 1998 to attain significant and measurable results in the area of drug demand reduction have been attained only to a limited extent, owing largely to the lack of a balanced and comprehensive approach. 

Supply reduction:  The commitment made by Member States in 1998 to attain significant and measurable results in the area of supply reduction has been attained only to a limited extent,

(Thus, what is proposed is a more balanced - between demand and supply reduction - and comprehensive approach.)

Crime and Violence: In some cases, criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking are exposing civil society and law enforcement authorities to increasing levels of harm and violence, in particular because of their propensity to be heavily armed with illicitly manufactured and trafficked firearms and to engage in violence to protect themselves and their illicitly trafficked drugs. The international community must take steps to not only reduce the illicit supply of drugs but also reduce the violence that accompanies drug trafficking.


Executive Summary: Preface

Antonio Maria Costa
Executive Director
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

The end of the first century of drug control (it all started in Shanghai in 1909) coincided with the closing of the UNGASS decade (launched in 1998 by a General Assembly Special Session on Drugs). These anniversaries stimulated reflection on the effectiveness, and the limitations, of drug policy. The review resulted in the reaffirmation that illicit drugs continue to pose a health danger to humanity. That’s why drugs are, and should remain, controlled. With this sanction in mind, Member States confirmed unequivocal support for the UN Conventions that have established the world drug controlsystem.

At the same time, UNODC has highlighted some negative, obviously unintended effects of drug control, foreshadowing a needed debate about the ways and means to deal with them. Of late, there has been a limited but growing chorus among politicians, the press, and even in public opinion saying: drug control is not working. The broadcasting volume is still rising and the message spreading. Much of this public debate is characterized by sweeping generalizations and simplistic solutions. Yet, the very heart of the discussion underlines the need to evaluate the effectiveness of the current approach. Having studied the issue on the basis of our data, UNODC has concluded that, while changes are needed, they should be in favour of different means to protect society against drugs, rather than by pursuing the different goal of abandoning such protection.

A. What’s the repeal debate about?

Several arguments have been put forward in favour of repealing drug controls, based on (i) economic, (ii) health, and (iii) security grounds, and a combination thereof.

I. The economic argument for drug legalization says: legalize drugs, and generate tax income. This argument is gaining favour, as national administrations seek new sources of revenue during the current economic crisis. This legalize and tax argument is un-ethical and uneconomical. It proposes a perverse tax, generation upon generation, on marginalized cohorts (lost to addiction) to stimulate economic recovery. Are the partisans of this cause also in favour of legalizing and taxing other seemingly intractable crimes like human trafficking? Modern-day slaves (and there are millions of them) would surely generate good tax revenue to rescue failed banks. The economic argument is also based on poor fiscal logic: any reduction in the cost of drug control (due to lower law enforcement expenditure) will be offset by much higher expenditure on public health (due to the surge of drug consumption). The moral of the story: don’t make wicked transactions legal just because they are hard to control.

II. Others have argued that, following legalization, a health threat (in the form of a drug epidemic) could be avoided by state regulation of the drug market. Again, this is naive and myopic. First, the tighter the controls(on anything), the bigger and the faster a parallel (criminal) market will emerge – thus invalidating the concept. Second, only a few (rich) countries could afford such elaborate controls. What about the rest (the majority) of humanity? Why unleash a drug epidemic in the developing world for the sake of libertarian arguments made by a pro-drug lobby that has the luxury of access to drug treatment? Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled – they are controlled because they are harmful; and they do harm whether the addict is rich and beautiful, or poor and marginalized. Drug statistics keep speaking loud and clear. Past runaway growth has flattened out and the drug crisis of the 1990s seems under control. This 2009 Report provides further evidence that drug cultivation (opium and coca) are flat or down. Most importantly, major markets for opiates (Europe and South East Asia), cocaine (North America), and cannabis (North America, Oceania and Europe) are in decline. The increase in consumption of synthetic stimulants, particularly in East Asia and the Middle East, is cause for concern, although use is declining in developed countries.

III. The most serious issue concerns organized crime. All market activity controlled by the authority generates parallel, illegal transactions, as drug controls have generated a criminal market of macro-economic dimensions that uses violence and corruption to mediate between demand and supply. Legalize drugs, and organized crime will lose its most profitable lineof activity, critics therefore say. Not so fast. UNODC is well aware of the threats posed by international drug mafias. Our estimates of the value of the drug market (in 2005) were ground-breaking. The Office was also first to ring the alarm bell on the threat of drug trafficking to countries in West and EastAfrica, the Caribbean, Central America and the Balkans. In doing so we have highlighted the security menace posed by organized crime, a matter now periodically addressed by the UN Security Council. Having started this drugs/crime debate, and having pondered it extensively, we have concluded that these drug-related, organized crime arguments are valid. They must be addressed. I urge governments to recalibrate thepolicy mix, without delay, in the direction of more controls on crime, without fewer controls on drugs. In other words, while the crime argument is right, the conclusions reached by its proponents are flawed. 

Why? Because we are not counting beans here: we are counting lives. Economic policy is the art of counting beans (money) and handling trade-offs: inflation vs. employment, consumption vs. savings, internal vs. external balances. Lives are different. If we start trading them off, we end up violating somebody’s human rights. There cannot be exchanges, no quid-pro-quos, when health and security are at stake: modern society must, and can,protect both these assets with unmitigated determination. I appeal to the heroic partisans of the human rights cause worldwide, to help UNODC promote the right to health of drug addicts: they must be assisted and reintegrated into society. Addiction is a health condition and those affected by it should not be imprisoned, shot-at or, as suggested by the proponent of this argument, tradedoff in order to reduce the security threat posed by international mafias. Of course, the latter must be addressed, and below is our advice.

B. A better policy mix

The crime/drugs nexus was the subject of a Report entitled Organized Crime and its Threat to Security: tackling a disturbing consequence of drug control1 that I presented to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the Crime Commission in 2009. Because of the importance of this subject, we have devoted the thematic chapter of this year’s Report to examining further the issue and its policy implications. Here are some of the main points. 
  1. First, law enforcement should shift its focus from drug users to drug traffickers. Drug addiction is a health condition: people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution. Attention must be devoted to heavy drug users. They consume the most drugs, cause the greatest harm to themselves and society – and generate the most income to drug mafias. Drug courts and medical assistance are more likely to build healthier and safer societies than incarceration. I appeal to Member States to pursue the goal of universal access to drug treatment as a commitment to save lives and reduce drug demand: the fall of supply, and associated crime revenues, will follow. Let’s progress towards this goal in the years ahead, and then assess its beneficial impact on the next occasion. Member States will meet to review the effectiveness of drug policy in 2015.
  2. Second, we must put an end to the tragedy of cities out of control. Drug deals, like other crimes, take place mostly in urban settings controlled by criminal groups. This problem will worsen in the mega-cities of the future, if governance does not keep pace with urbanization. Yet, arresting individuals and seizing drugs for their personal use is like pulling weeds – it needs to be done again the next day. The problem can only be solved by addressing the problem of slums and dereliction in our cities, through renewal of infrastructures and investment in people – especially by assisting the youth, who are vulnerable to drugs and crime, with education, jobs and sport. Ghettos do not create junkies and the jobless: it is often the other way around. And in the process mafias thrive.
  3. Third, and this is the most important point, governments must make use, individually and collectively, of the international agreements against uncivil society. This means to ratify and apply the UN Conventions against Organized Crime (TOC) and against Corruption (CAC), and related protocols against the trafficking of people, arms and migrants. So far, the international community has not taken these international obligations seriously. While slum dwellers suffer, Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten Latin America, and mafias penetrate bankrupt financial institutions, junior negotiators at these Conventions’ Conferences of the Parties have been arguing about bureaucratic processes and arcane notions of inclusiveness, ownership, comprehensiveness, and non-ranking. There are large gaps in the implementation of the Palermo and the Merida Conventions, years after their entry into force, to the point that a number of countries now face a crime situation largely caused by their own choice. This is bad enough. Worse is the fact that, quite often vulnerable neighbors pay an even greater price. There is much more our countries can do to face the brutal force of organized crime: the context within which mafias operate must also be addressed. Money-laundering is rampant and practically unopposed, at a time when interbank-lending has dried up. The recommendations devised to prevent the use of financial institutions to launder criminal money, today are honored mostly in the breach. At a time of major bank failures, money doesn’t smell, bankers seem to believe. Honest citizens, struggling in a time of economic hardship, wonder why the proceeds of crime – turned into ostentatious real estate, cars, boats and planes – are not seized.

Another context deserving attention concerns one of humanity’s biggest assets, the internet. It has changed our life, especially the way we conduct business, communication, research and entertainment. But the web has also been turned into a weapon of mass destruction by criminals (and terrorists). Surprisingly, and despite the current crime wave, calls for new international arrangements against money-laundering and cyber-crime remain un-answered. In the process, drug policy gets the blame and is subverted.

C. A double “NO”

To conclude, transnational organized crime will never be stopped by drug legalization. Mafias coffers are equally nourished by the trafficking of arms, people and their organs, by counterfeiting and smuggling, racketeering and loan-sharking, kidnapping and piracy, and by violence against the environment (illegal logging, dumping of toxic waste, etc). The drug/crime trade-off argument, debated above, is no other than the pursuit of the old drug legalization agenda, persistently advocated by the pro-drug-lobby (Note that the partisans of this argument would not extend it to guns whose control – they say – should actually be enforced and extended: namely, no to guns, yes to drugs). So far the drug legalization agenda has been opposed fiercely, and successfully, by the majority of our society. Yet, anti-crime policy must change. It is no longer sufficient to say: no to drugs. We have to state an equally vehement: no to crime. There is no alternative to improving both security and health. The termination of drug control would be an epic mistake. Equally catastrophic is the current disregard of the security threat posed by organized crime.