UN Drug Czar Gives up on Drug Free World, Admits New Strategy is Needed

Press Release June 23, 2009
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 646-335-5384 or Ethan Nadelmann at 646-335-2240

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its 2009 report today. Acknowledging that a growing number of people around the world favor legalizing, taxing and regulating drugs to reduce crime, corruption and addiction, the report points out that the drug prohibition regime is responsible for much “drug related” crime, violence, corruption and black markets. The report also concluded that countries cannot arrest their way out of the problem and that law enforcement must shift its focus from users to traffickers. UNODC urged countries to rethink their drug policies, but denounced calls to consider legalization.

“The U.N. Drug Czar is talking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand he admits global drug prohibition is destabilizing governments, increasing violence, and destroying lives,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “But on the other hand he offers facile arguments dismissing the need for serious debate on alternative drug policies.”

In the report, UNODC concluded “[t]he system of international drug control has produced several unintended consequences, the most formidable of which is the creation of a lucrative black market for drugs and the violence and corruption it generates.” It also put forth arguments by those in support of legalization, noting that taxing drugs instead of prohibiting them could raise revenues to fund public health programs, and decriminalizing or legalizing drugs could make people with drug-related problems less afraid to seek treatment. The report even praised a successful decriminalization policy in Portugal.

After highlighting the problems associated with drug prohibition and the benefits of legalization, however, the United Nations report refuted the potential benefits and condemns legalization.

“Transnational organized crime will never be stopped by drug legalization…;.There is no alternative to improving both security and health. The termination of drug control would be an epic mistake.”

“The report erroneously assumes that prohibition represents the ultimate form of control when in fact it represents the abdication of control,” Nadelmann added.

It is the first time, however, that the annual UNODC report has addressed the debate over prohibition versus legal regulation in a substantive manner. The report echoes a growing chorus of policymakers calling for a debate on prohibition.

In recent months, both California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Gov. David Paterson said marijuana legalization should be considered and debated. Earlier this year, the city council of El Paso, Texas passed a resolution urging Congress to consider legalization or decriminalization. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, citing evidence that Mexican drug trafficking organizations get 60 to 80 percent of their revenue from marijuana, has suggested members of Congress debate legalizing marijuana to undermine crime syndicates. In February, the Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, a high-level commission co-chaired by former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, called for a “paradigm shift” in global drug policy, including decriminalizing marijuana, and “breaking the taboo” on open and robust debate about all drug policy options. Former Mexican President Fox and current vice president of Colombia, Francisco Santos have also recently questioned the logic of prohibition and have called for further debate.

U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, who spoke at a press conference today announcing the new United Nations report, said legalization “is not in my vocabulary”. Advocates for reforming U.S. drug policy, however insist that all options must be on the table.

“Everyone from U.S. governors to United Nations officials is talking about the need for alternatives to our failed prohibition policies,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Drug Czar Kerlikowske can pretend legalization isn’t part of his vocabulary, but he cannot ignore the elephant in the room forever.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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