24 June - Amid an increasingly brutal struggle for a bigger slice of the $50 billion global cocaine market between Central American drug cartels, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has warned that legalizing narcotics would be an “historic mistake,” in a call for a global boost in drug treatment and crime control.
UNODC Executive Director, Antonio Maria Costa, acknowledged that laws controlling narcotics have created a huge black market for illicit drugs that thrives on violence and corruption.
However, “a free market for drugs would unleash a drug epidemic,” said Mr. Costa, as UNODC launched its 2009 World Drug Report today in Washington, DC.
“Proponents of legalization can't have it both ways,” he said. “Legalization is not a magic wand that would suppress both mafias and drug abuse.”
Mr. Costa stressed that attempts to remove drug-related crime by decriminalizing illicit drugs – as some have suggested – would be an “historic mistake” because of the danger narcotics pose to health.
“Societies should not have to choose between protecting public health or public security. They can, and should, do both,” he said in a call for more resources for drug prevention and treatment, and stronger measures to fight drug-related crime.
The international cocaine market is undergoing seismic shifts, with purity levels and seizures in the main consumer countries going down, prices on the rise, and consumption patterns in a state of flux, noted Mr. Costa. “This may help explain the gruesome upsurge of violence in countries like Mexico. In Central America, cartels are fighting for a shrinking market.”
Over 40 per cent of the world's cocaine is seized, mostly in Colombia, compared to less than 20 per cent of opiates – opium, morphine and heroin – captured, according to the World Drug Report.
In West Africa, a major transportation hub for trafficking to Europe, a decline in seizures seems to reflect lower cocaine flows after five years of rapid growth, the report said.
“International efforts are paying off,” said Mr. Costa, who launched the report along with newly appointed Director of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske. Yet drug-related violence and political instability continue, especially in Guinea-Bissau, he added.
“As long as demand for drugs persists, weak countries will always be targeted by traffickers,” said Mr. Costa, adding that if “Europe really wants to help Africa, it should curb its appetite for cocaine.”
The new UNODC study reported that opium cultivation in Afghanistan, where 93 per cent of the world's total is grown, declined by 19 per cent in 2008, and Colombia, which produces half of the world's cocaine, saw an 18 per cent decline in cultivation and a 28 per cent decline in production.
“The more opium is seized in Afghanistan's neighbourhood, the less heroin on the streets of Europe, and vice versa, the less heroin is consumed in the West, the more stability there will be in West Asia,” said Mr. Costa who plans to bring the message to a Group of Eight industrialized nations (G-8) ministerial conference on Afghanistan later this week in Italy.
Mr. Kerlikowske said that US President Barack Obama's Administration is “committed to expanding demand reduction initiatives,” adding that through “comprehensive and effective enforcement, education, prevention, and treatment, we will be successful in reducing illicit drug use and its devastating consequences.”
The Report provides a number of recommendations on how to improve drug control, including the treatment of drug use as an illness.
“People who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution,” said Mr. Costa, appealing for universal access to drug treatment with the argument that people with serious drug problems provide the bulk of drug demand and treating this problem would contract the market.
Mr. Costa also called for an end of what he characterized as the “tragedy of cities out of control,” pointing out that most “drugs are sold in city neighbourhoods where public order has broken down. Housing, jobs, education, public services, and recreation can make communities less vulnerable to drugs and crime.”
Government enforcement of international agreements against organized crime, such as the UN Conventions against organized crime and corruption, and greater efficiency in law enforcement with a focus on the large volume of petty offenders, would also help international drug control efforts, he said.
Mr. Costa noted that in some countries, five times as many people are imprisoned for drug use compared to drug trafficking. “This is a waste of money for the police, and a waste of lives for those thrown in jail. Go after the piranhas, not the minnows.”