Global Trends. Lessons from Vienna

20 June 2003

martin-jelsmaMartin Jelsma analysed the 2003 UNGASS mid-term review and drew some important conclusions for the 10-year review in 2008: "Alliances have to be constructed rooted in pragmatic approaches and in solidarity with the victims of this War on Drugs on both sides of the spectrum, be they in the North or in the South, consumers or producers. The concepts of ‘co-responsibility’ and a ‘balanced approach’ between demand and supply sides have to be redefined. Only if such a coalition of like-minded countries could be brought together, and act in a coordinated manner to explore more pragmatica drug policies for both the demand and the supply sides, the UN level might become a useful forum. Only then, a stronger political alliance can enforce a more open-minded debate about current anti-drug strategies and challenge the US hegemony and discourse in this field."


Three months ago, in April, a special meeting took place of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs to evaluate global drug policies. Ministers gathered in Vienna to discuss progress achieved and obstacles encountered in meeting the targets set five years ago at the 1998 UN Special Session on drugs in New York. This UNGASS called for "eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008." It was not the first time the world set deadlines for eradicating drugs from the planet. In 1961, with the UN Single Convention a period was agreed to phase out opium in 15 years and coca and cannabis in 25 years. None of these targets have been met, to the contrary, the illicit drugs market has been expanding ever since. But in New York, ignoring decades of failure in addressing the issue of illicit crops, the UN set the year 2008 as yet another deadline by which to eliminate coca and opium, arbitrarily adding cannabis on the last moment. In April in Vienna – halfway down the 10-year plan – policy officials from around the world undertook a mid-term review. What did they conclude? What have been the main trends in the drugs market and in drugs policy over the past five years? And what is the relevance of the United Nations in the field of drug control?

In Vienna, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime argued that encouraging progress has been achieved in meeting the UNGASS goals and targets for 2008. The Executive Director acknowledged that the goals were still distant, but drew the attention to a set of success-stories of drug crop reductions. Colombia was one of those success-stories, because "in 2002, for the second year in a row and reversing an eight-year trend, Colombia has achieved a major reduction of coca cultivation: an impressive 37 per cent decline since 2000". "For the first time in over a decade aggregate coca cultivation in the Andean region, the main pro ducer in the world, declined to 173,000 hectares. This is a major achievement in the international against illicit drugs and related crime," said Mr. Antonio Maria Costa. Burma, the world’s second largest opium producer after Afghanistan was highlighted as another success-story. Opium production has gone down in recent years. "If helped to sustain the current momentum, South-East Asia could well become a minor source of illicit opium by the year 2008. Such a tremendous achievement would close a 100-year chapter in the history of drug control." According to ODC, this and other examples show that the elimination of illicit cultivation can be achieved and sustained.

It is premature, however, to talk about any successes. The history of the coca/cocaine and opium/heroin markets shows many local declines that were off-set by increases elsewhere. Usually the market restores itself. Total production has been remarkably stable over the past decade in spite of some sharp fluctuations that never lasted more then two years and were usually brought into balance again through production shifts from one place to another. We’ve seen the dramatic coca crash in Peru early nineties and the shift to Colombia. Inside Colombia we’ve seen coca being sprayed out of the Guaviare to boom in Putumayo. Aerial spraying is now shifting the cultivation  from the Putumayo to Nariño, in part back to Guaviare and to some new areas deeper into the Amazon. Five years ago coca was cultivated in only 10 of the 32 departments here in Colombia. Today it is grown in 23. Especially in the departments of Nariño, Cauca and Boyacá there is much uncertainty about the precise figures of the recent rise in cultivation. Reports also indicate that coca cultivation is rising in both Peru and Bolivia, and might yet spill over into Venezuela and Ecuador.

Similar things happened over the years in Asia. Opium cultivation shifted from Thailand to Burma, and from Turkey and Iran to first Pakistan and then to Afghanistan. Local reductions are by no means a sign of success. So far, the reality is that in spite of all efforts to reduce illicit cultivation and disrupt trafficking, global production and availability of cocaine and heroin for consumption have not been reduced. About cannabis figures nobody has a clue and synthetic drugs are on the rise every day.

Apart from the dubious claims of successes, the mid-term evaluation at the UN in Vienna consisted largely of long listings of control measures that member states have undertaken since 1998 to implement the various Action Plans. Measures like new laws against money-laundering, tightening control of chemical precursors, improve international judicial cooperation, ease extradition procedures, etc.

Such smokescreens are not convincing. A mid-term review restricted to descriptions of local or tem­porary fluctuations in the illicit market and to a process-oriented evaluation of implemented measures leads to a distorted picture of virtual progress. To argue –as has been the pattern for the past 40 years– that the answer should be to simply increase law enforcement, judicial cooperation and eradication efforts, are no longer credible. If evaluation is meant for learning lessons and improving policy effectiveness, it cannot escape an assessment of the impact on global drug trends and of the costs and collateral damage inflicted by the control measures. Genuine evaluation can lead to inconvenient conclusions and therefore presupposes a political willingness to question the validity of existing policies. As the chairman of the UK Home Affairs Select Committee on drugs, Chris Mullin, concluded last year: "Attempts to combat illegal drugs by means of law enforcement have proved so manifestly unsuccessful that it is difficult to argue for the status quo."

On supply reduction side, there is an astonishing lack of sound argumentation about the consequences and impact of policy interventions on the illicit market. The general assumption seems to be that eradication and interdiction operations contribute to achieving the aim of supply reduction simply because they are meant to do so. Market responses, displacement of production and counter-measures by criminal groups involved are well known phenomena, but rarely taken into account when judging the impact of policy interventions. Very basic questions are rarely posed. For example, if price developments are a useful indicator of drug availability, there are no data on the basis of which one could argue that eradication efforts and the many seizures of shipments have ever reduced the availability on the consumption markets. Wholesale and retail prices show a downward trend while purity is rising, which means there is no shortage on the market.

UN drug policy making is a consensus-driven machinery. The declarations are not the result of a rational analysis of facts, but based on political compromises. Behind the apparent unanimity of the outcomes of the Vienna meeting, lies a long­standing conflict between nations desperately trying to maintain the status quo of a prohibition regime rooted in ‘zero tolerance’, and those recognising its failure, illusion and hollow rhetoric who are opting for a more rational, pragmatic and humane approach, the trend with its centre of gravity in Europe, Canada and Australia. It is evident that there is a growing divergence, a polarisation. At the UN level this has led to an impasse which can only be broken by means of a genuine evaluation of the adopted strategies, goals and targets with an open mind towards future policy directions.

There are four priority issues where the impasse at the UN level urgently needs to be broken: the introduction of harm reduction in the UN drugs debate, an accommodation of the cannabis decriminalisation trend, the opening up of room for manoeuvre on supply side, and an initiative aiming to revise the UN drug control conventions.

   1. Harm reduction in the UN drugs debate

      The moment has arrived for a breakthrough for the harm reduction or risk reduction concept. At the very least it should become a normal and accepted part of the debate on the UN level. In the Action Plan adopted in 1999 to implement the UNGASS Guiding Principles on Demand Reduction, countries committed themselves to offer "the full spectrum of services, including reducing the adverse health and social consequences of drug abuse". The Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS adopted at the UNGASS of June 2001, specifically calls on nations to ensure, by 2005, expanded access to clean needles and to promote "harm reduction efforts related to drug use".

      In spite of considerable national differences, there is an irreversible trend across Europe in the direction of more pragmatic policies. Outside of Europe, several countries have been moving in a similar direction, most notably Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Brasil, while some other Latin American countries are exploring such steps, awaiting an appropriate political moment.

2. Cannabis decriminalisation

There is also a growing recognition of the need to distinguish between recreational use and problematic use and a shift in policy focus accordingly, concentrating policy efforts on the relatively small group of problematic users. Only a minor percentage of recreational users develop problematic patterns of consumption. Especially for massively consumed substances like cannabis and XTC those percentages are so low that the world should stop fooling itself by putting them in the same category as heroin.

      The inclusion of cannabis in the 1961 Convention was a mistake from the very start and including it again in the elimination target for 2008 is simply absurd. Cultivation takes place everywhere, no-one has a clue about global production and consumption figures anyway, more than a hundred million people use it regularly for recreational purposes without creating major problems. There’s a clear policy trend towards decriminalisation across Europe, in Canada, in Jamaica, etc. If some countries want to continue to control it by means of law enforcement, let them do so, but give the rest of the world leeway for pragmatic choices. This means to take cannabis out of the straitjacket of the Conventions, which requires a revision of several 1961 and 1988 treaty articles - not just a rescheduling.

      These policy developments of Harm Reduction and cannabis decriminalisation taken together should lead to a change in climate at the level of UNODC, CND and INCB, the core triangle of the UN drug control machinery that so far has consistently rejected the use of these terms in the policy debate. This is in contrast to agencies like WHO, UNAIDS and UNDP that are already using the harm/risk reduction concept as a matter of course. Thus, the issue of UN system-wide consistency is also at stake here.

   3. Room for manoeuvre on supply side

      On the demand side, the tendency towards more pragmatic drug policies is gain­ing ground. On the production side, however, there has been an escalation in repressive ap­proach­es over the last decade. Desperate attempts to show results in terms of counting hectares. Supply reduction efforts have created great harms to individuals and to society at large, filling up prisons, intensifying internal conflicts, increasing corruption, human rights violations, destruction of livelihoods and environmental degradation. The ongoing intensification of chemical spraying of crops in Colombia is a dramatic example creating many policy contradictions. European and UN sponsored development projects are being destroyed by US sponsored eradication planes. Alternative Development is in a deep crisis in Colombia. US drug-czar John Walters talked about a turning point and proudly informed Congress that last year’s intensive spraying in Putumayo had forced 10% of the population to flee their homes. Adding to the problem of internal displacement is considered a major success in drug control.

      All this takes place without producing convincing evidence that these harmful measures are in any way successful in what they are intended to do: to reduce the availability of drugs for consumption. All combined supply reduction efforts thus far – eradication, Alternative Development, interdiction – have failed in terms of global impact.

      We need to open space for pragmatic policies towards illicit cultivation. More flexibility in the negotiations with coca farmer unions in Bolivia and Peru could have prevented the enormous social tensions right now. Here in Colombia the aerial spraying is a humanitarian and environmental drama. It intensifies the armed conflict and adds obstacles to the search for a negotiated settlement. Proposals could be discussed to decriminalise small scale cultivation as one of the parliamentary initiatives here in Colombia has called for. Several countries have expressed their wish to decriminalise cannabis cultivation.

      The absence of latitude also hinders attempts in Alternative Development strategies, to justify more realistic gradual reduction schemes, adjusted to the slow pace of demand reduction and appropriate to the slow pace of securing alternative livelihoods. In the Alternative Development debate now in the context of the reconstruction in Afghanistan, the drugs issue is increasingly regarded as a cross-cutting issue, for which balanced responses have to be designed that take into account policy considerations in the areas of development, human rights, conflict resolution and prevention, etc. To enable balanced decision-making, however, there has to be room for manoeuvre. The mandatory character of the UN conventions leave no such room for manoeuvre regarding the cultivation of drug-linked crops.

      The thematic evaluation of Alternative Development called for last year by the CND, could serve to explore options in the direction of pragmatic policies. The Resolution (CND 45/14) calls for "a rigorous and comprehensive thematic evaluation, for determining best practices in alternative development by assessing the impact of alternative development on both human development indicators and drug control objectives and by addressing the key development issues of poverty reduction, gender, environmental sustainability and conflict resolution". The same resolution by the way already recognised that "despite great efforts undertaken by many Member States to implement the Action Plan and despite the measures taken to reduce or eliminate illicit drug crops, the world supply of and demand for illicit drugs have remained at almost the same levels".

   4. A revision of the drug control conventions

      Greek Foreign Minister Papandreou has proposed to undertake "a thorough evaluation of the international drug treaties. We must verify their effectiveness, short­comings must be brought into the open and proposals must be tabled to find new ways for for­mu­lat­ing and applying drug policies". Countries need to have more leeway for experimentation and prag­matic approaches than the conventions now allow for. There is a growing tension between practice and theory, which should be addressed by adjusting the conventions to the requirements of practical policy, not the other way around.

      Consensus on new approaches will not be found easily on the UN level. But European countries have sound reasons to be assertive about their achievements with pragmatic approaches, and to demand adjustments to the global legal framework that enable them to continue on the path they've democratically chosen for.  The limits of latitude allowed under the conventions are being reached, as the INCB again points out in a rather nasty way in its report released last week. But, as the 1997 UN World Drug Report said: "Laws – and even the international Conventions – are not written in stone; they can be changed when the democratic will of nations so wishes it."

In conclusion

To break the current impasse political alliances have to be constructed. No country can withstand the US pressure on its own. The UN can serve as a forum where such alliances can be explored. Like-minded countries can find safety in numbers by pressing certain issues forward in a coordinated way. One major difficulty in finding such alliances is that there are in fact two divides in the global drugs debate: ‘zero tolerance’ versus pragmatism and North versus South.

The main point always brought forward at the multilateral level from Latin American side, is ‘co-responsibility’ interpreted as more money for Alternative Development from the developed countries, critique on the US unilateral certification mechanism, demanding more attention to the demand side, money laundering, chemical precursors and synthetic drugs. In principle these are all valid points, since the drug control system has long been biased placing the burden on cultivation in Southern countries. And clearly the lobby on these issues from countries like Colombia and Mexico has gained results in terms of acceptance of the need for a more ‘balanced’ approach. At the 1998 Special Session more attention was given to the demand reduction side. Over the past years also many law enforcement programmes have been launched in the areas of chemical precursors and synthetic drugs, all with highly questionable effectiveness, like any supply reduction effort based on law enforcement.

The difficulty is how this North-South divide has affected the other divide, between tolerance and pragmatism. The Southern voice is rooted in a plea for funding combined with the accusation of hypocrisy. Basically arguing that Northern countries should not only compensate them for the income losses –for farmers and the national economy- but also should apply similar levels of repression to the part of the problem they are responsible for (demand, money laundering, precursors). Since the South feels indeed unduly pressured to not only extradite major traffickers, but also send their military to fight farmers and destroy livelihoods, they request the North not only to put controls on banks and chemical industry, but also to put their consumers in prison. In fact, Southern countries have aligned themselves at the UN level largely on the side of ‘zero tolerance’. Any leniency in terms of Harm Reduction or cannabis decriminalisation in European countries or Canada, is fiercely attacked from the side of African, Asian and also Latin American countries.

This perverted interpretation of so called ‘co-responsibility’ and ‘balanced approach’ has to be overcome. Alliances have to be constructed rooted in pragmatic approaches and in solidarity with the victims of this War on Drugs on both sides of the spectrum, be they in the North or in the South, consumers or producers. The concepts of ‘co-responsibility’ and a ‘balanced approach’ between demand and supply sides have to be redefined. If countries here in Latin America want to challenge the War on Drugs forced upon them, if they want more leeway to negotiate with farmers, if they want to end forced eradication, they will need to build a bridge with those countries in the North experimenting with less repressive approaches, countries like Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, etc. Only if such a coalition of like-minded countries could be brought together, and act in a coordinated manner to explore more pragmatica drug policies for both the demand and the supply sides, the UN level might become a useful forum. Only then, a stronger political alliance can enforce a more open-minded debate about current anti-drug  strategies and challenge the US hegemony and discourse in this field.

The inclusion of the drugs issue in the agenda of the World Social Forum process can play an important role in redefining the concept of co-responsibility, and defining a common agenda for such a like-minded coalition. By bringing together people from around the world and from the different ends of the spectrum, and by making linkages between drug policies and other social issues, like human, social and cultural rights, marginalisation and exclusion, the importance of survival economies, the impacts of neoliberal globalisation, conflict resolution and prevention, etc. Finally, an worldwide alliance of this nature can help to build pressure to push for the mentioned priority issues at the UN level, call for an an independent global evaluation of the current drug control system and put forward recommendations for a more just, more effective and more humane drug policy.

June 20, 2003
Presented at the Social Forum in Cartagena (Colombia)

Re-Asserting Control: Voluntary Return, Restitution and the Right to Land for IDPs and Refugees in Myanmar - cover