The drug war: new paradigm vs old paradox

The appointment of a new head of the lead United Nations anti-drugs agency is a precious opportunity to abandon a failed policy, says Juan Gabriel Tokatlian.
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
17 August 2010

The United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon declared on 9 July 2010 that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) would have a new executive director: Yuri Fedotov, a citizen of the Russian Federation. Fedotov's appointment means the departure of Antonio Maria Costa (of Italy), who has held the position since 2002 and whose record - at a critical time in the development of the issues under his remit - has been particularly poor. Indeed, the balance of his moderately conservative tenure has only confirmed the mistakes, shortcomings and contradictions of the current prohibitionist regime.

Yuri Fedotov arrives with a mix of attributes: a professional diplomat with solid expertise on key UN matters, who may lack a specialist background on narcotics but comes from a country highly affected (from inside and outside) by the complex interconnection between drugs, organised crime, and terror.  He faces a major choice: to become the thoughtful catalyst of a progressive paradigm-shift, or to perpetuate the fruitless paradox that a “war on drugs”  which has proved ineffectual across four decades can somehow, some day, be made to work.

The ingredients of change

The potential paradigm that is waiting for Yuri Fedotov to embrace rests on three core ideas.

The first is the failure of the current global counter-narcotics strategy. This  relies on an international anti-drugs regime that lacks legitimacy, credibility and symmetry. The reinforcement of this regime, backed by the main United Nations conventions on drugs, can lead only to its greater  discredit and contempt at the level of interstate relations and among non-state actors. In particular, the impossible search for  a unified, homogenised approach to drugs that ignores cultural and contextual differences among countries and citizens provokes more alienation.

The way beyond this situation is to validate a new set of principles. One of them, for example, could be that the measures that stem from one international regime - in this case, illicit drugs - must not collide with others, such as human rights, the environment, or small arms. This is not to suggest that drug-users are responsible for negative outcomes in these areas; it is rather about urging states to be consistent use in their discourses and practices across the board, and avoid anti-narcotics policies that increase human-rights violations, environmental degradation and the proliferation of weapons.

The second idea is that the structural problems that have allowed the drug trade to flourish have not been overcome, either in developed countries or peripheral ones. A new approach must begin by recognising that a better anti-drug strategy needs to be linked to good public policy on justice, equity, health, human rights, education and employment. The issue of drugs is just a symptom of something more deep and complex that involves, without exception, the international system. To see narcotics in their proper proportions and real meaning is a fundamental step in rethinking the failed "war on drugs" (see "The global drug war: beyond prohibition”, 4 December 2007).

The third idea is that it might be time to try a modulated regulatory scheme. This implies the establishment of a specific type of drug-regulation according to the damage caused in each case. The universe of illegal psychoactive substances should be disaggregated, because not all drugs are identical in nature and effect. It is also crucial to identify regulatory mechanisms of various kinds throughout the production chain, from demand to supply; to operate on a single link without considering all stages creates a dysfunctional situation that benefits only transnational organised crime.

The first international treaty on drugs, the International Opium Convention was agreed in The Hague on 23 January 1912. A century on, Yuri Fedotov has the chance to reorient the current international drug-regime. Prohibition has not worked and will not work. Instead of waiting for a miraculous paradox - that through more coercion, the demand for drugs will one day vanish - it is a moment to encourage a realistic and transformational paradigm.

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