The Drug Trade

Arguments Continue Over Legalization

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JULY 12, 2009 ( Drug trafficking and its associated problems of organized crime and corruption continues to be a severe problem. On June 24 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its 2009 edition of the annual World Drug Report.

The report showed that global markets for cocaine, opiates and marijuana are steady or in decline. By contrast, the production and use of synthetic drugs is feared to be increasing in the developing world.

Opium cultivation in Afghanistan, the source of over 90% of the world’s opium, declined by 19% in 2008 according to UNODC. Colombia, which produces around half of the world’s cocaine, saw a similar decline of 18% in cultivation. In fact, the report estimates that global coca production is at a five year low, despite some increases in cultivation in Peru and Bolivia.

“The $50 billion global cocaine market is undergoing seismic shifts,” said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa when presenting the report on Washington D.C.

“Purity levels and seizures (in main consumer countries) are down, prices are up, and consumption patterns are in flux. This may help explain the gruesome upsurge of violence in countries like Mexico. In Central America, cartels are fighting for a shrinking market,” he said.

Regarding marijuana, the most widely cultivated and used drug around the world, the report admitted that while its consumption is steady in the biggest markets the data is uncertain for countries in the developing world.

UNODC added that research is showing that marijuana is more harmful than commonly believed. The average THC content (the active component) of hydroponic marijuana in North America almost doubled in the past decade. This has major health implications as evidenced by a significant rise in the number of people seeking treatment, the report said.

When it comes to synthetic drugs – amphetamines, methamphetamine and ecstasy – the report noted that the news is mixed. Use has leveled off in developed countries. In the developing world, the fear is that production and consumption may be growing, but there is a scarcity of reliable data.

It is clear, however, that there are industrial-sized laboratories in South East Asia, that are producing massive quantities of methamphetamine tablets, and crystal meth and other substances like Ketamine, the report observed.

Black market

Costa acknowledged that there is now an illicit black market of enormous proportions. Yet, he rejected the idea of legalizing drugs as a way of removing this problem.

“Illicit drugs pose a danger to health. That’s why drugs are, and must remain, controlled,” he argued.

“Societies should not have to choose between protecting public health or public security: they can, and should do both,” he declared. Instead of legalization Costa called for more resources for drug prevention and treatment, and stronger measures to fight drug-related crime.

This doesn’t convince proponents of legalization. The editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal hosted a debate on April 25, with opposing essays on the question. Steven B. Duke,   a professor of law at Yale Law School, argued in favor of legalization.

His thesis was that decriminalizing the possession and use of marijuana would raise billions in taxes and also eliminate source of bloodshed and violence in Mexico.

Duke likened the situation to the attempt to prohibit alcohol in the United States in the 1920s. “The only long-term solution to the cartel-related murders in Mexico is to legalize the other illegal drugs we overlooked when we repealed Prohibition in 1933,” he stated.

Not so, contested John P. Walters, executive vice president of Hudson Institute and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2001 to 2009 under President George W. Bush.

No relaxation

Walters pointed out that the progress achieved in Colombia is clear evidence that we can succeed in reducing drug production. He also argued that the historical evidence clearly shows that relaxed restrictions lead to more abuse and addiction.

He noted that today’s federal drug laws originated in a response to widespread drug and violence around the end of the 19th century. At that time there was free access to opiate- and cocaine-based medicinal remedies. As a result of the availability he said there were an estimated 250,000 opiate addicts in the U.S. population of 76 million.

The case against drugs was also made by a columnist for an Australian newspaper, Miranda Devine, in a couple of recent articles. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 23 she quoted former drug addicts who criticized the harm minimization programs the leave heroin users on methadone indefinitely.

Devine argued in favor of treatments that detoxify addicts, ridding them of their addiction.

She returned to the topic on June 20, pointing out that Sweden is an example of where the war against drugs has been won. From being one of the most permissive countries for drug use Sweden radically changed course and adopted a stance of criminalizing drugs and obliging addicts to detoxify.

As a result, Devine continued, drug use in Sweden is considerably lower than in the rest of Europe, which has more permissive drug policies. She cited the European School Survey Project On Alcohol And Other Drugs report of 2007. This revealed that only 2% of Swedish students aged 15 or 16 had smoked cannabis in the previous 30 days, compared with 20%  in Spain and 18% in the Czech Republic.

The latest UNODC report itself had a section arguing why illicit drugs should remain illegal. In many areas of international cooperation there are mixed results, the report noted. For example, the struggle against poverty fails many times, but only when it comes to drugs are there calls for abandoning efforts.

More deaths

Legal addictive substances kill far more people every year than illegal ones, the report pointed out. In fact, an estimated 500 million people alive today will die due to tobacco. This
greater death toll is not a result of the licit substances being pharmacologically more hazardous than the illicit ones, but is a consequence of their being legal, and consequently more available, the report argued.

So, if currently illegal substances were made legal, their popularity would surely increase,
perhaps reaching the levels of licit addictive substances, thus causing a notable increase in  mortality.

The report also explained that legalizing drugs would have a devastating impact on developing nations. Currently most people in poorer countries cannot afford illegal drugs, due to their being prohibited. Legalization, and more affordable drugs would lead to a huge increase in drug use in these countries. Already, the report observed, there is a similar problem when it comes to tobacco use. Public health programs and restrictions on advertizing has reduced tobacco use in Western countries, but consumption is much higher in developing nations.

By 2030, more than 80% of the world’s tobacco deaths will occur in developing countries, according to UNODC. “These countries can ill-afford this burden of disease. They are even less capable of giving up a share of their productive work force to more immediately debilitating forms of addiction,” the report warned.

Some argue that the costs of controlling illicit drugs outweigh the benefits, the report noted.  This is a false dilemma according to UNODC. The report urged the international community to achieve both greater control over the trade in illicit drugs and also to limit the costs of violence and corruption associated with this control.

“Progress must be made toward simultaneously achieving the twin goals of drug control and crime prevention,” the report concluded. Clearly not an easy task, but the evidence points to it being the best way to deal with the scourge of drugs.

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