ENCOD BULLETIN ON DRUG POLICIES IN EUROPE
NR 64 JUNE 2010
WOULD LEGALISATION HARM DEVELOPING COUNTRIES?
Last March, during the CND meeting in Vienna, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa warned that developing countries could face a “health disaster if wealthy countries fail to control drugs”.
Costa pointed to a growing drug problem in impoverished nations. He also remarked that the “developing world – already struggling to deal with health, education and unemployment problems – lacks the treatment facilities and law enforcement to control narcotics“. And he continued: “Poor addicts– and there are millions of them– have been pushed to the margins of society, deprived of medical attention, often exposed to conditions, including imprisonment, that exacerbate their illness‘.
Costa also seemed to have already found the ones to blame for this fatidic destiny: “This seems to have been forgotten by people in rich countries calling for loosening of drug controls,” and he concludes: “Why condemn the Third World, already ravaged by so many tragedies, to the neo-colonialism of drug dependence?”
Mr. Costa is speaking to us from an imagined moral high ground, but in fact advocating the continuation of the harmful policies that are the main cause of the misery that he tries to make his opponents feel guilty about.
It is true that developing countries that have important connections with the illegal drug market, as producers or as trade routes, have been struggling with drug related problems for decades and it is also true that many of them have increasing rates of drug consumption. It is also quite obvious that developing countries are expected to have less resources to adequately address drug addiction, and have more aggravating circumstances then developed nations (urbanization, poverty, migration, educational deficits, income inequalities…).
But let’s make one thing clear here: what was exactly the role of “neo-colonialists”or “rich countries” in this “disaster”? Certainly it was not the “loosening of drug controls”. Let’s forget the rhetoric and look at the facts.
The so-called War on Drugs, fiercely pursued by rich nations led by the US, was forcefully imposed to developing nations, and is becoming tougher and tougher each day. It is widely acknowledged now, and even admitted by UNODC, that this policy is also systematically generating immense “unintended consequences” such as a criminal market, displacement of routes, markets and substances, and the marginalization of users. Despite strong indications of failure of this policy, organizations such as UNODC are still encouraging countries to join international drug control efforts.
Having considered the efficacy of the current drug “control” system then how can Costa call for more of the same? How can he claim that this would help developing nations to escape from “drug dependence tragedy”? How exactly can more drug prohibition and counter-drug tactics save poor countries from a “health disaster”?
One thing that probably is worrying Mr Costa is the mythological concept that the cost of drug use to the individual and to the society infinitely outweighs the cost of enforcing prohibition. According to this concept any effort to reduce the availability of drugs is justifiable. However, evidence suggests that the costs of prohibition are, in fact, very high, and evidence on the efficacy of prohibition to reduce drug use is, at best, disappointing.
Even if we admit that the costs of drug use are in fact very high, we can not forget the role that prohibition plays in that. It is certain that criminalization of drugs is behind the majority of health and social problems related to drug use and is also an important factor for the perpetuation of poverty, inequalities, corruption, poor governance and underdevelopment of many nations.
Criminalization increases the negative effects of drug use
1. Prohibition attracts drug traffickers and drug consumption to countries in which drug consumption would otherwise not be prevalent. The costs of distributing drugs inside transit countries is lower, given that traffickers already must build up networks of collaborators to move the drugs through. Even though transit countries are poorer, and drug prices therefore much lower, low marginal costs make these markets highly lucrative. The fact that drug traffickers pay local collaborators in drugs, may explain part of the rise in consumption in transit countries.
2. Illegality undermines the usual vehicles of quality control upon which legal markets rely. In this context, overdoses due to uncertain strength and poisoning due to adulteration are both certain to be more frequent.
3. Criminalization of drugs and drug use impedes efforts to treat drug addiction and to prevent the spread of HIV among drug users. Since consumption is an illegal activity in most developing countries and, because of that, drug use tends to take place under less than ideal conditions, the transmission of contagious diseases and overdoses becomes more likely. Access to health care and harm reduction may lessen these problems, but users are still reluctant to take advantage of these when consumption is criminalized and profoundly stigmatized.
Criminalization perpetuates corruption, poverty and inequality.
1. The war against drugs increases the cost of drugs, making drug production and sale more profitable and therefore more attractive – particularly to those living in poverty. More risks, more profits, and even more poor people being recruited to this illegal activity.
2. To achieve and maintain profit goals, traffickers implement strategies to respond to the “challenges” of confronting the state, which include corruption of important officials and policemen and violence against the state and other competing groups. Corruption jeopardizes democratic stability and is a serious obstacle to guaranteeing a countrys’ governablility and national security.
3. An estimated 4 million people depend on income derived from the cultivation of illegal drug crops. In many countries, efforts to wipe out drug cultivation and supply have a high cost to human welfare and lives. For farmers there are few economic incentives for growing alternatives to drug crops. Moreover, a major part of the profits end up in the hands of those who control the later stages of the distribution process (retailers in developed countries).
4. Two other well-known costs of prohibition are the lives lost due to prohibition-induced violence and the productivity losses due to incarceration. The majority of people incarcerated in Brazil due to drug related crime are uneducated, poor, black young men, who where caught selling small amounts of drugs. More people die of drug trafficking related violence then of drug-related diseases or overdose, especially in developing countries.
In summary, despite the research and analyses made so far, social and individual costs of drug use, and the effects of prohibition on consumption are uncertain. Some will argue that it is likely that the relaxation of prohibition would lead to an increase in drug consumption. However, there is much evidence (see for instance the EC Report by Reuter and Trautmann) that the influence of repressive policies on levels of drug use is marginal. In addition, the nature of the “legalization” regime against which prohibition is being compared is not clear. But if drug trade can be regulated and resources diverted to other policies, such as treatment and education, with proven efficacy in reducing addiction and problematic use, it is likely that the types of drug use that impose the largest costs could be reduced.
Negative health and social consequences related to prohibition should be correctly put in the equation when the “tragedy of drug dependence” is weighed.
By: Marisa Felicissimo (with the help of Peter Webster)