The UN’s drug war demagoguery

September 5, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Posted in Drugs | 4 Comments

Antonio Maria Costa is a man with such good fortune that he has a job which shouldn’t exist.

Whilst there may be a place for a United Nations and occasions when global agreements are appropriate, the UN Conventions which universalised the war on drugs and sustains it to this day were, in my view, a mistake.

The question of whether to allow or prohibit narcotics should have been left for a nation state to decide in consultation with its citizens. Had that happened, there would have been no need for the UN to have its own ‘Drugs Czar’, and Mr Costa would’ve been able to find an infinitely more rewarding – though perhaps less lucrative – line of work.

But it’s not the position Costa occupies which grates the most, nor his advocacy for continuing a war we’ve long since lost. No, what makes Costa a particularly horrid figure is the nauseating tone of preachiness which doesn’t just extol his position on the ‘moral high ground’, but is quite happy to impugn the morality of those who disagree.

Just a glance at his pieces for The Guardian will give you a decent idea of the ‘holier than thou’ schtick in which he trades. There’s the warning that legalisation would cause a ‘worldwide epidemic of addiction‘; his ‘innocently’ wondering ‘how many lives would have been lost‘ if we achieved legalisation; the beyond parody line that ‘every line of cocaine means a little part of Africa dies.’ I mean, he could be writing placards for the SWP.

Yes, I know the paper writes its own headlines and they don’t always reflect the tenor of the piece; trust me, in Costa’s case, they capture the sanctimony perfectly. Indeed, he’s up to his old tricks in his latest piece, characterising the drugs debate as being between “those who dream of a world free of drugs and those who hope for a world of free drugs”. Now, the internet’s home to some pretty filthy mudslinging, but his suggestion that supporters of legalisation are motivated solely by an urge to get high is a really grubby little smear.

But whilst there are few more offensive statements, Costa still takes the time to make some equally audacious claims:

In Mexico, a bloody drug war has erupted among crime groups fighting for the control of the US drug market. The legalisers’ argument on security is striking, though it leads to the wrong conclusion. Prohibition causes crime by creating a black market for drugs, the argument goes, so, legalise drugs to defeat organised crime. As an economist, I agree. But this is not only an economic argument. Legalisation would reduce crime profits, but it would also increase the damage to health, as drug availability leads to drug abuse.

So Costa admits that Felipe Calderon’s drug war – which has baked whole cities in flames, killed over twenty thousand and contributed barely anything to reducing export and consumption – could be ended with legalisation. But we absolutely mustn’t do that, because people might then start taking drugs. What’s Spanish for WTF?

Incidentally, this isn’t the first time Costa’s made a self-defeating admission and dressed it up as affirmation; he’s previously admitted that prohibition fuels violence and said that if we don’t reduce the violence and get rid of the criminals, people will start wondering whether legalisation is the only thing that can. His audacity is astonishing.

Last but not least, there’s the question of human rights. Around the world, millions of people caught taking drugs are sent to jail. In some countries, drug treatment amounts to the equivalent of torture. People are sentenced to death for drug-related offences. Although drugs kill, governments should not kill because of them. The prohibition versus legalisation debate must stop being ideological and look for the appropriate degree of controls.

It needs saying that insofar as governments have prosecuted the war on drugs inhumanely and used it to kill without due process, they have been aided and abetted by the United Nations. One of the great ironies about the UN’s interference in the drugs trade is that this well-meaning, occasionally laudable advocate for freedom and human rights concocted a set of conventions which provided nation states with the legal and moral justification – even obligation – to increase power over their citizens.

Though it’s terribly generous for Costa to condede that ‘although drugs kill, governments should not kill because of them’, human rights abuses from Columbia to Kabul are perpetually excused by their perpatrators as regrettable errors in pursuit of a more important goal.

The UN and its drugs czar are contributing editors to the mess we’re in, and no amount of zealous, overwrought demagoguery from Antonio Maria Costa will diminish that. It is he who is the problem, not us.

Update: This is also quite good.

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.