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Rediscovering the Great British Republican Tradition


For a Civic and Constitutional Republic


Issue No 44 Friday 10 July 2009




This week 

·         UN Drugs Report Says Prohibition Is Necessary To Keep Prices High So That Poor People Cannot Afford Them


·        Gordon Brown's 10 Worst Financial Gaffes


News Stories

Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.





·         UN Drugs Report Says Prohibition Is Necessary To Keep Prices High So That Poor People Cannot Afford Them



The United Nations Office On Drugs And Crime in Vienna has just produced its World Drug Report 2009. The report contains a wealth of information on the state of the production, distribution and retailing of drugs for recreational purposes. Its diagrams, maps and tables are a marvel of presentation and clarity – even if they ignore key areas. However, its conclusions are predictable. Drugs should remain illegal.


First let us clarify what we mean when we talk about the “drugs problem”. All of the drugs that are illegal throughout the world are in fact also legal at the same time. This is because their use for medical purposes is legal but, of course, at the same time highly controlled. It is their use for recreational purposes that is illegal.




Cocaine/heroin world trafficking routes


All the synthetic recreational drugs, like “Ecstasy” and amphetamines were invented for medical uses. The non-synthetic recreational drugs (i.e. drugs that have a natural origin) like heroin (made from opium), cocaine and even cannabis, also, to one degree or another have legal medical uses.


Ironically the only drugs that are used recreationally that have no medical use are the two that are legal: tobacco and alcoholic drinks. (Alcohol in its pure form of course does have myriad uses in medicine and other disciplines).


A third category exists in the chemicals used in the manufacture, for instance, of glue although these are now illegal for use in applications where they can be openly marketed.  


Thus the drugs that are the subject of the UN report are required for non-recreational uses and so even if their recreational use were abolished some production would still be necessary for medicine and industry. The report does not mention this fact and so is directed at eradicating production altogether. It does not address, for instance, the fact that some of Afghanistan’s production of opium might still be needed for medical purposes.


As well as being an impressive assembling of facts (some of which surely must have been obtained from illegal sources) it is above all a statement of the orthodox position regarding the recreational use of drugs. Such use must be banned, eliminated. The “war on drugs” is tough and may be unwinnable but there is no alternative but to continue. Because this report represents a definitive statement, and one that UN member countries are expected to follow, it is worth looking closely at the arguments it contains. Throughout it suggests awareness that not everyone will agree with its policy thrust and it often comes across as being very defensive



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Let us start with the Preface which states:


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 … 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.


We should first note that this report continually uses the term “drug control” but what it really means is “drug prohibition”, i.e. the production, distribution, retailing and consumption of drugs are prohibited, illegal. No one is arguing against drug control except the prohibitionists for by definition you cannot control something that is illegal. What control it is subject to will be entirely a matter for the criminal fraternity. This fundamental dishonesty in the terminology used tells us a lot.


The statement quoted contains the assumption that the existing Prohibition on recreational drug use offers some “protection” – a view that is difficult to substantiate. Do we really feel protected against the ill effects of recreational drugs at present? The Preface continues


 [Some] 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 … [but] the tighter the controls (on anything), the bigger and the faster a parallel (criminal) market will emerge.


[But surely the tightest control possible on anything is to make it illegal and so if the logic of the argument is correct (which it is) then outright Prohibition creates the biggest criminal market]


… 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?


This is nonsense again. To deal with drugs as an illegal activity is vastly more expensive and difficult that dealing with them as a legal activity. This applies to rich and poor countries equally.


The Report then argues


The most serious issue concerns organized crime. Inevitably, 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 line of activity, critics therefore say.


The critics’ argument seems only common sense to many but then the report starts to get very confused


… we have concluded that these drug-related, organized crime arguments are valid. I urge governments to recalibrate the policy 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. … 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, traded off in order to reduce the security threat posed by international mafias.


We should remember at this point that this report is produced by a responsible UN agency and it has a duty to argue cogently. It defies anyone to make sense of the above “counting beans” argument or of the suggestion that proponents of decriminalizing recreational drugs suggest “addicts” should be “traded off”.


The report then makes some suggestions for tackling the organized crime issue. It makes the hoary old point about targeting the dealers not the users


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…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:


Next we are told that a problem is “cities out of control”


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. … Ghettos do not create junkies and the jobless: it is often the other way around.


The authors of the report here are simply ducking responsibility for the recreational drugs problem by saying we have to solve the massive and complex problem of city growth first. This is a cop out as is the third idea for combating organized crime


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. …a number of countries now face a crime situation largely caused by their own choice. [RPWN emphasis]


So the report reprimands countries for not implementing UN initiatives as if they would be sufficient to solve the problem


It is also saying that drugs are the result of other things, not the cause. There is surely some truth in saying that bad living conditions and hopeless prospects increase recreational drug use, but this point has absolutely no logical bearing on whether or not we have the right policy towards recreational drug use. The next point in the report seeks to further muddy the waters


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. [RPWN emphasis]


The conclusion of the Preface repeats the view that even without recreational drug Prohibition we would still have organized crime. Of course we would, but it would be denied a major part of its sustenance. The mafia in America and Italy was on the verge of collapse in the nineteen eighties until it entered into drug trafficking. Its old source of income in protection rackets was coming under threat and in any case the market for recreation drugs was hugely more profitable. Without the recreational drugs trade, the mafia would be a shadow of what it actually is.


Just as telling, the criminal gangs that characterized the USA during the years of Alcohol Prohibition in the 1920’s disappeared virtually overnight when Prohibition finished. The organised crime of Al Capone et al depended entirely on Prohibition for its existence.


Furthermore in a most glaring and perhaps frightening omission, there is nothing in the report about terrorism. Organised crime and national and international terrorist groups often are associated and arms dealing adds to the unholy alliance. Income from drugs helps to funds terrorism. (The Taliban are usually referred to as insurgents but there is a fine line between insurgents and terrorists and the Taliban is almost wholly funded by “taxing” the opium farmers.)


Lastly we are told


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). [RPWN emphasis]


Note the use of the word “equally”. Despite a mass of detailed information in the report there is not a single piece of evidence to back up this statement. And what does it mean? Equal to each item of this list or equal to the collection?


This point had been refuted by the report (above) when it said


Inevitably, drug controls have generated a criminal market of macro-economic dimensions  that uses violence and corruption to mediate between demand and supply. [RPWN emphasis]


And is flatly contradicted later in the report with the statement


the backbone of global organised crime has long been transnational trafficking, in particular the illicit trade in drugs. [RPWN emphasis]


Exactly. So it is clear from the report’s own observation that organised crime would be very significantly affected if the trafficking in recreational drugs did not exist. These are matters of the utmost importance for people everywhere - literally matters of life and death - and if we cannot argue cogently and consistently we simply should not be arguing at all.



But the report continues to play down the role of recreational drugs and in a last strident bid to drown the issue in everything else it indignantly rants


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.


But no one is arguing for the “termination of drug control”. One of the great advantages of decimalisation is that recreational drugs can be controlled if legal.


The Preface is signed by Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime


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Section 1 of the report is mainly a statistical statement of the recreational drugs situation worldwide and we will pass over this here. The main policy is outlined in section 2 entitled  




It is divided into subsections of which the first is the most important it is called


Why illicit drugs must remain illicit


The first argument is: drugs are bad, but so are others things


Oddly, of all areas of international cooperation, drug control is uniquely subject to calls that the struggle should be abandoned. Despite equally mixed results in international interventions, no one advocates accepting poverty or war as inevitable. Not so with drugs, where a range of unintended consequences have led some to conclude that the only solution is to legalise and tax substances like cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamine, and heroin.


It is odd that poverty and war should be invoked for they are not actually illegal, just unfortunate. But then this is typical of this report. It is as if they don’t expect anyone to bother to read it carefully and so why bother to argue carefully? We are then again referred to organised crime


The strongest case against drug control is the violence and corruption associated with the black market. The main problem is not that drug control efforts have failed to eliminate drug use, [for that is] an aspirational goal akin to the elimination of war and poverty


And so failure is not failure because we expect it anyway. We are reminded that


drug control was the subject of broad-based international agreements in 1912, 1925, 1931, 1936, 1946, 1948, and 1953, before the creation of the standing United Nations Conventions in 1961, 1971, and 1988. Nearly every nation in the world has signed on to these Conventions. Nonetheless, there remains a serious and concerned group of academics and civil society organisations who feel the present system causes more harm than good. Plans for drug “legalisation” are diverse, and often fuzzy on the details


It is not clear whose “fuzzy” proposals are being referred to here. We would argue, probably like the “concerned group” referred to, that the recreational use of drugs should be legal but highly controlled. The degree of control depends on the nature of the drug involved, so for instance class A drugs like heroin should only be available to registered users.  What is “fuzzy” about that?


The report now states


If currently illegal substances were made legal, their popularity would surely increase, perhaps reaching the levels of licit addictive substances,


But this statement contradicts experience in Portugal where use of classified drugs has been made legal (although selling them is still illegal). In Portugal use of hard drugs has declined as a result of legalization. The UN report ignores this example in making this statement (although does mention Portugal later on)



Now the report gives us its bombshell of a key statement


Unfortunately, most of this thinking has indeed been restricted to the developed world, where both treatment and capacity to collect taxes are relatively plentiful. It ignores the role that global drug control plays in protecting developing countries from addictive drugs. … In most developing countries, street drugs are too scarce and expensive for most consumers. They are scarce and expensive because they are illegal.


The universal ban on illicit drugs thus provides a great deal of protection to developing countries, and must be maintained. [RPWN emphasis]


Then making the comparison with tobacco use


… in many poor countries, more than 10% of household expenditure is for tobacco. Indeed, the spread of tobacco to the developing world gives a hint of what could happen if other addictive substances were made legal.


These countries can ill-afford this burden of disease. They are even less capable of giving up share of their productive work force to more immediately debilitating forms of addiction.


So now we get it. The main reason for making the manufacture, trade and recreational consumption of drugs is to keep the price high so that poor people cannot afford them. This is for their own good. Look what happens when they can get hold of tobacco. 


So all the suffering, violence, death, wasted resources, crime and corruption produced by Prohibition is justified so that people in poor countries will not be able to afford to buy the prohibited drugs. This argument is as insulting as it is ridiculous.


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Here the report is working on the fear that people have of prohibited drugs and the mystique that surrounds them. Yes, they are dangerous. But whether they are more dangerous than the legal drugs of tobacco and alcohol is far from proven. Certainly it is possible (if not inevitable) that someone can live a quite normal life with a regular consumption of good quality heroin or cannabis. Someone who suffers from excessive alcohol consumption cannot live a normal life. This is not to say consumption of heroin or cannabis should be encouraged or be made freely available but it is quite irresponsible, as the report does, to assume that the effects of currently prohibited drugs would necessarily be catastrophic and out of control if they were legal. Where we have evidence (as in Portugal) legalization is shown not to increase the bad effects.


In addition there is a great deal of myth associated with the so-called addictive powers of heroin and other Class A drugs. Indeed the whole idea of addiction is questionable and should be treated with caution. It is a concept beloved of both doctors who treat users and of users themselves. The doctors love it for it converts the use of drugs into a “health issue” even a “disease” and so they can they treat it, perhaps with substitutes, or with the “addictive” drug itself. Users love it for it is the means by which their pleasure becomes an “illness” so allowing them to have legal, cheaper or even free supplies.


People use heroin and cocaine primarily because they like it. OK, they like it so much they cannot resist having more. But what anyone working in the field or what “ex-addicts” will tell you is that drug use is closely related to lifestyle, and life opportunities. When these things change so can the “addiction”. The so-called physical dependency, if it exists, is in most cases limited or illusory. As one time heavy heroin user, Rolling Stone, Keith Richards, put it “Cold turkey is not too bad really. Two days of crawling up walls and you start to feel better”.


(Incidentally Richards is frequently cited for having an iron constitution to survive his drug use, ignoring the fact that he could always afford the best quality heroin which is not nearly so dangerous to health as street grade stuff is and probably not as dangerous as tobacco or alcohol)


If the UN report wishes to make the comparison with the legal drugs of tobacco and alcohol it should point out that it is these drugs that produce the heaviest and most irreversible dependency. It is with these two that the idea of addiction as a medical condition is most appropriate if appropriate it is. (Ironically addiction to tobacco or alcohol has never justifies an appropriate doctor’s proscription!!)


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To go back to the UN report, it returns to the link between recreational drug use and organised crime. It asserts:


the violence and corruption associated with drug markets is very real, and must be addressed.


We then have one of the report’s most conspicuous blandishments suggesting  the authors perhaps do not live in the real world


Fortunately, there is no reason why both drug control and crime prevention cannot be accomplished with existing resources


Incredible! After a half century or more of full on Prohibition and only a worsening situation this is their view. Existing resources are adequate to do the impossible job of winning the “war on drugs”


This is how the report assesses the current situation on the link between recreational drug use and organised crime


International drug control has produced several unintended consequences, the most formidable of which is the creation of a lucrative black market for controlled substances, and the violence and corruption it generates. Drug control generates scarcity, boosting prices out of proportion to production costs. … high prices have helped contain the spread of illicit drugs. This has kept drugs out of the hands of an untold number of potential addicts. Profits are ploughed back into increasing the capacity for violence and into corrupting public officials. Together, violence and corruption can drive away investment and undermine governance to the point that the rule of law itself becomes questionable. As a result, some have argued that the costs of controlling illicit drugs outweigh the benefits – in effect, that the side effects are so severe that the treatment is worse than the disease.


So what is the answer this seemingly intractable set of desperate problems? The UN is forthright on this


It is incumbent on the international community to achieve both objectives: to control illicit drugs and to limit the costs associated with this control.


If that seems a tall order, the authors of the report help out with this advice


More creative thinking is needed


Thanks for that. And


Progress must be made toward simultaneously achieving the twin goals of drug control and crime prevention.


We are reminded of the response of those bystanders who witnessed the transformation of Clark Kent into Superman


But How!?


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In section 2.2 the report does at least try to be a bit more concrete and advises


The key to disrupting drug markets and the associated violence and corruption must lie in making the business of drug dealing more complicated,.


Yes we can see that “complicated” is a turn off for drug dealers. Who wants complication?


From here on the report rambles on with various bits of isolated advice that probably introduce nothing that the law enforcement agencies do not already know. More interesting the report does consider the case of Portugal


Portugal is an example of a country that recently decided not to put drug users in jail. Those in possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use are issued with a summons rather than arrested. The drugs are confiscated and the suspect must appear before a commission. The suspect’s drug consumption patterns are reviewed, and users may be fined, diverted to treatment, or subjected to probation. Cases of drug trafficking continue to be prosecuted, and the number of drug trafficking offences detected in Portugal is close to the European average. Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism. It also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased. [RPWN emphasis]


That sounds fine but the text does not follow up with any deductions. The report moves on to its curiously titled “Guide the market” as if the readers are expected to be doing some personal shopping. It reminds us that


… the production costs of drugs comprise only a tiny fraction of their retail cost, and this fact is entirely attributable to their illegality.




It is worthwhile stressing this point for the conclusion from it is obvious. Without prohibition there would be no profit in the trade and so no illegality. This is a vital matter for it effectively rubbishes all the report’s previous statements that other things, like social conditions, should be cleaned up to make the Prohibition enforceable. Without Prohibition the criminal fraternity worldwide would be deprived of an enormous source of revenue that would make many other operations impossible. Prohibition has to precede the reduction of crime


This point is reinforcement by the report


… the phenomenon of “displacement” is often used to criticise drug control efforts. Crackdowns in one country or region cause cultivators and traffickers to move operations


That’s right. This is another reason why Prohibition will always fail


This report is full of observations that unintentionally point towards the abandonment of Prohibition and its one of the last of these is particularly relevant to the British involvement in the Afghan war


…  large-scale illicit crop cultivation seems to require political instability because accountable governments can be compelled to take action against drug production in areas under their control. It is no coincidence that most of the world’s cocaine and heroin supplies come from countries with insurgency problems. Almost all of the world’s cocaine supply comes from three countries and almost all the world’s heroin supply comes from two. This is not because coca and opium poppy could not be cultivated in other areas – in the past, most of the world’s supply of these drugs came from countries not presently leading illicit production. All of these countries have problems with the rule of law in the cultivation areas.


This fact has to be fed into the consideration of the desperate intractable nature of the Afghan war. It tells us why we can never win it. Every life lost is a life lost for nothing at all.


This is but just one example of how overwhelmingly important the issue of Prohibition of recreational drugs is. It is costing lives on a massive scale. It is enabling corruption of organised crime to flourish everywhere.


Let us be clear. Prohibition is one of the greatest evils in the world today. Its consequences are without bounds or boundaries. This United Nations Office On Drugs And Crime report is high on data but very low on logic and common sense.


If this is the best the Prohibitionists can do they have lost the arguments resoundingly


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A copy of this article has been left on the website of United Nations Office On Drugs And Crime where they have asked for comments on the report. Any reply will be published here in full





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……. …….until next week