This is a guest blog by Josh Torrence
Almost ten years ago, Antonio Costa shocked the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) with a speech that lifted the lid on the ‘unintended consequences’ of drug prohibition. As the director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, this was unexpected to say the least. UN web pages outlining these negative side-effects have now been taken down, and the analysis is missing from contemporary UN documents and speeches. After briefly admitting to the harms created by the Single Convention, the UNODC promptly stuck its head back in the sand.
Costa admitted that prohibition is responsible for the creation of by far the largest illicit trade, worth $320bn. Criminals are clearly happy to profit from the gap in the market created by the lack of any regulatory system. Philosopher Jonathan Wolff argues that the social costs created by the illegality of the drugs trade outweigh the harm caused by the drugs themselves. He contends that criminal-market violence is one of the largest social costs of prohibition. With no regulating authority to refer to in the event of a business dispute or a robbery, some drug dealers resort to violence to protect their business interests. This violence occurs both within and between criminal organisations. Barnett believes that an ability and willingness to use violence gives dealers a competitive market advantage. This certainly appears to be true in impoverished communities across the globe; controlled by drug gangs and visited infrequently by police. The UN Single Convention has unwittingly encouraged criminals worldwide into an arms race, both with each other and law enforcement.
The UN admits that illicit drug markets drive murder rates up. Drug-related violence adversely affects the safety of many communities across the globe - and it is typically the impoverished who bear the largest burden. Thomas Kerr and others have demonstrated a direct link between stricter enforcement and increased criminal-market violence. Violent spikes often occur when there are sudden changes within drug markets, the classic example being when a power vacuum is created by the death or capture of a high-ranking dealer. Since the Mexican government decided to use military forces to combat drug cartels in 2006, murder rates have risen so much that the average life expectancy has been reduced. Trying to determine exactly how many deaths are attributable to criminal-market violence is extremely difficult - it can be hard to prove which homicides are drug-related, and no one is brave enough to estimate a global number. In Mexico alone, it is estimated there have been over 20,000 drug-related murders annually since 2010. Peter Reuter has also established a link between stricter enforcement and upticks of violence in the 1980s U.S. crack cocaine market. Decades later, U.S. continues to suffer from epidemic levels of violence from gangs who derive most of their income from the drugs trade.
In addition to the violence within the criminal market, law enforcement across the globe often employs the use of violence when trying to stem the flow of drugs. Amnesty International estimates that over 7,000 people were slaughtered over the course of seven months in the Philippines, after Duterte brought in an extreme zero-tolerance policy towards drug users. This number continues to rise, while the UN skirts around the issue - ignoring calls from over 300 NGOs to condemn the killings. In a leaked conversation, Trump congratulated Duterte on doing a ‘great job’ of tackling drug use. Despite Duterte’s crackdown, it is reportedly still easy for locals to obtain crystal methamphetamine, which is wildly popular and known as ‘Shabu’. In the U.S, Boyum and Reuter roughly estimate that a U.S. cocaine dealer has a 1 in 15,000 chance of being caught by law enforcement every time they make a sale. It appears that drug dealers across the globe are far at more risk from each other than they are from law enforcement.
One is led to wonder - it is worth it? Does prohibition prevent enough people from harmful drug use to justify tens of thousands of sons and daughters having their lives violently cut short? The UN estimates that globally, one in twenty people took an illicit drug during 2014, equivalent to the combined populations of the UK, France, Germany and Italy. Around 27 million (slightly over 10%) of these people are problematic users, according to the UN. This large number of regular users indicates that people are not struggling to access illicit drugs. The UK Home Office artfully put it that “levels of drug use are influenced by factors more complex and nuanced than legislation and enforcement alone”. In other words, enforcement and drug use do not correlate; it appears that drug use has more to do with complex social and cultural factors than their legal status.
That analysts are more confident in linking enforcement efforts to increased criminal-market violence than to decreased usage levels should set alarm bells ringing – however the UN remains with its head buried deep in the sand. Drug-producing nations (those worst affected by black-market violence) are typically developing countries, their situation only made worse by the fact that they are unable to tax their largest exports. Their comparatively small economies make them easy to ignore at UN meetings. Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico urgently requested that the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, held roughly once a decade, be brought forward three years to 2016. Despite this, critics claim that UNGASS was a disappointing repetition of the 2009 Session. In the Single Convention, member states are only obliged to prohibit the specified drugs ‘if in its opinion the prevailing conditions in its country render it the most appropriate means of protecting the public health and welfare’. Given the levels of violence surrounding the drugs trade, this is clearly not the case - however any radical change in this regard would require a collaborative effort between producer and consumer nations. Without this, countless lives will continue to be lost through unnecessary violence.