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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.