'A drugs-free world - we can do it!" That is the official slogan of the UN's current 10-year war-on-drugs strategy. A drugs summit marking the halfway point in that 10-year plan ended in Vienna last week - and it has all been a triumphant success. Or so said the director of the UN office on drugs and crime in his breezy opening address. "Does drug control policy work?" he asked rhetorically. "This question can be answered in the affirmative and unanimously." Yes, the UN program is "on target to reach its goals" - to eradicate drug abuse and the cultivation of coca, cannabis and opium by the year 2008. Yes, really.
It was a Comical Ali moment, a breathtaking lie which everyone in the hall knew was nonsense - and he knew they knew it. Out there, drug prices are still falling and drug use is generally thought to be increasing. A few optimistic experts say it has stabilized - but few believe it. In Britain, the national treatment agency says addiction is rising by 7% a year. Drugs continue to cause political disintegration in poor producer countries at the hands of international crime, while causing social mayhem among the poor in rich consumer countries.
In the corridors of the Vienna conference, delegates agreed that the message from the platform might have emanated from some drug-induced nirvana. But the only permissible line decreed in three UN conventions is a "Just Say No" policy. All countries signing the conventions must enforce total prohibition laws, so no delegate could question whether it works. Afghanistan's crop this year will be back up to pre-Taliban levels - providing 90% of heroin: the country has no other export and the growers are far beyond the reach of Kabul's feeble authority. Colombia's US-imposed crackdown on coca has lead to huge planting in Bolivia and Peru instead.
America's strong arm reaches deep into the interstices of every policy. It is America's war-on-drugs policy, pushed by Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr, that imposes rigid prohibition on the rest of the world. No softening of internal laws is permitted. For poor countries, the penalties for failing to follow US/UN dictates on absolute prohibition - hunting down growers, traffickers and users - leads to heavy punishment in aid and trade. Richer countries can afford to be a little more independent in following their own policies, but not much without heavy censure.
Astonishingly, Britain was severely admonished just before this conference, for daring to slightly soften its stance on cannabis by reclassifying it from class B to class C. A sharp reprimand from the international narcotics control board, the UN body charged with policing enforcement of the conventions, said that Britain's decision would have "dangerous, worldwide repercussions". The INCB's British delegate even went so far as to say that this minor change would fill British psychiatric wards with cannabis victims in 10 years' time. Bob Ainsworth, Britain's drug minister, gave a robust riposte: he was not proposing a radical change in policy, only a sensible flexibility in response to "what works" evidence. "We want to inject some straight, open thinking," he said.
Most of Europe came under attack. The Swiss are to legalize cannabis in the next couple of years, Dutch cannabis cafes turn a blind eye, Portugal has decriminalized possession, Spain has downgraded possession to a civil offence, Austria and Greece are taking similar paths. In most of Europe, cannabis policy is hardly controversial. (Only Sweden and France, alas, take the same US prohibition line.)
What really matters is how governments deal with the drugs that cause social havoc and high crime. Britain is extending its program for prescribing methadone as part of treatment: currently around 40,000 are receiving prescriptions, if need be for life, to stop them committing crimes to feed their habit. Other European countries are shifting their hard drug policies increasingly away from law enforcement into health agencies. Some countries have needle-exchange schemes to reduce Aids risk; some have "shooting galleries" where addicts can take drugs safely, methadone programs, or heroin-prescribing and pill-testing facilities. All these are proving successful in reducing harm, amid a growing sense that prohibition has been a calamitous failure. Yet a moderate attempt by a large group of NGOs failed to get the conference even to "review the effectiveness of the present UN strategy": presumably a study of the evidence would be too politically dangerous.
In Britain the government has moved with caution, not through any liberal instinct but under the sheer pressure of failure. The official guesstimate of the cost of drug addiction is somewhere between £10bn and £18bn a year - mostly in crime and its consequences: each addict is estimated to steal £13,000 a year to survive. Policy now centers on the 250,000 hard drug users reckoned to cause most of the crime. The government has greatly expanded treatment programs: by 2008 most will have treatment. Yet still only half the addicts in prison get treatment - which is a mad false economy. Drug treatment pays for itself three to four times over.
Comparisons between countries are tricky. The Netherlands has had phenomenal success, with heroin addiction falling. Addicts are a shrinking and ageing group, well supervised and under control. Is that due to a good, well-financed, rational treatment program? More likely it is due to the structure of Dutch life, a far more equal society with an absence of gross poverty. Those western societies such as Britain and the US, with the greatest wealth gap and the most poverty, have the worst drug problems: it is an affliction of poverty among affluence. In Britain hard drugs are a minor irritant to the middle classes and a relatively small risk to their children, compared with the devastation on housing estates with high unemployment. Drugs are a disease that fills the void in vacant lives, dragging down depressed areas into disaster zones of crack houses, drug crime, guns and prostitution. Ending poverty would be the best cure, among both the western consumers and the third world growers.
But second best would be an end to a global policy that turns drugs from a manageable disease of the few into a widescale social calamity. Prohibition has followed the same predictable course as the US experiment in banning alcohol: it breeds crime. If methadone or heroin were prescribed by doctors globally to all addicts, drug-fueled crime would fall.
But US politics reduce all difficult issues to TV attack soundbites, making it impossible for politicians to debate what works: anything but "Just Say No", is a sure-fire election loser. So, yet again, US policies are imposed, and the crude deficiencies of American democracy are played out globally.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003