War on Drugs: UNODC A Total Failure 

A new, more effective drug control policy born out of political courage, imagination and realism is urgently needed.

By TP Saran 

Year in and year out, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that Mauritius is the leading illicit drug platform in the region: besides being an admission of its own failure to control the situation, which is given loud publicity through its local mouthpieces, what has UNODC done concretely to tackle the problem? Yes, it has organized jaunts for some of its favourites to Nairobi and Vienna, who then come back satisfied of their free trip – but benefit for the country: NYET! 

The UNODC has been leading an illusory ‘war on drugs.’ One cannot have a war on drugs: instead, drug control should be based on an understanding of human nature. Specifically, that the human being will go to any length to seek pleasure, which in modern society a limited number of drugs provide (alcohol, tobacco, heroin, cannabis and derivatives/analogues of the latter two): this is the demand side of drugs. 

The problem is — you can’t legislate against human nature, as prohibition proved. People will always seek escape – and find a way to do so, and this is where the drug mafia comes in.

Other societies have already concluded that ‘the war on drugs can never be won and we as a society have spent billions of pounds futilely waging it for decades. Why will it never be won is simple: human beings will always seek pleasure and there will always be someone to supply that pleasure in whatever form that takes.’ 

On the supply side are the drug dealer warlords and drug-traffickers who are after their own source of pleasure: money; they want a share of the international market for drugs worth about $320 billion a year. The users are the common people who pay not only big money, turning into thieves and criminals when their money runs out, but in the process damage their health, destroy their families and destabilize society, over which the warlords rule along with their accomplices in high places. 

Straddling these three interlocking groups is the government which is expected to solve the social burden and meet the economic costs generated by the supply and consumption of drugs, and which attempts to do so through legislation essentially inspired by a prohibitionist and criminal approach, a punitive policy favoured by UNODC despite failings. That’s what Enjoli Liston from Vienna wrote on 25 March 2011, adding that Yury Fedotov, the new executive-director for the UNODC, said ‘the Single Convention of 1961 – the first international treaty to lay the framework for global drug-control systems – is still the most appropriate mechanism.’  

One of the biggest criticisms of the 1961 pact is that it reinforces punitive approaches to drug problems. Mike Trace, chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), a global network of NGOs remarked that ‘we all have to acknowledge the key convention is now 50 years old. It was drafted in a time when our understanding of drugs problems was very limited. Strategies to strengthen repressive measures in source countries like Afghanistan, prohibition and the punishment of drug users have all been employed in the past, and none of them have been able to create the situation we want – which is to stifle the supply of illegal substances and stop young people from wanting to use them.’ This was also the view of Peter Sarosi, drug policy expert for the human rights organisation the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, who said: ‘The continuing focus on criminal justice and prohibition has already proved to be ineffective.’ 

There were many comments from civil society, such as ‘50 years, it hasn’t worked, and they want to carry on doing the same, only more so. What a waste of time and money. It’s clearly not prevented anything. All this approach has done is to provide a lucrative living to criminal gangs, and drive the whole thing underground.’ 

The situation was compared to Alcohol prohibition in the US run from 1919 to 1933: ‘all profits went to enrich thugs and criminals. Young men died every day on inner-city streets while battling over turf. A fortune was wasted on enforcement that could have gone on education, etc.’ Prohibition creates the drug black market. There is an irrefutable connection between drug prohibition and the crime, corruption, disease and death it causes. What is the point in facilitating this? Instead, one should realize that among all echelons of society, there are many people wanting to take drugs for recreational purposes: essentially an unstoppable and ongoing human behaviour which has been with us since the dawn of time. And because drug cartels will always have an endless supply of ready cash for wages, bribery and equipment, no amount of tax money, police powers, weaponry, wishful thinking or pseudo-science will make our streets safe.  

Don’t we have tobacco and alcohol, both legal and socially acceptable – although they both can, and do, kill? The point is some drugs have been deemed socially acceptable and some have not, the ones that are not acceptable are controlled by criminals, are unregulated and contaminated, and people will die. And since drugs are a global phenomenon, collective experience tells us that unless governments and opinions change we will continue to spend hundreds of millions on an unwinnable war, criminals will make billions, and people will continue to die.  

The most sensible solution is to legalise, regulate and tax drugs: along with taking the criminals out of the supply chain it would also save the taxpayer millions by emptying our prisons of non-violent drug offenders, freeing up our courts and reducing policing costs. It would also liberate taxpayers’ money which could then be used to clear up real crimes that actually affect peoples lives, such as violence and theft along with educating our children and paying for doctors and nurses to prescribe for, counsel, treat and follow up drug addicts, with the support of civil society organizations and statutory entities such as, locally, NaTRESA.  

The reply to a Parliamentary Question by the Prime Minister last Tuesday is obviously based on inputs from those who are directly involved in handling the various aspects of the drug problem in Mauritius, and although there is allusion to education and harm reduction strategies in place (such as Needle Exchange Programme and Methadone Substitution Therapy), the approach is again inspired by the UNODC paradigm. If we truly want to get to alleviate the problem, there is no other way than to shift the emphasis towards regulation rather than criminalisation. This will mean appreciating the specificity of the Mauritian situation and context, and take the bold alternative and innovative measures that are necessary – and be prepared to face the flak: otherwise we are doomed. 

Either through a new legislation, or perhaps an amendment of the Dangerous Drugs Act (DDA), the appropriate structures and systems can be put in place to give effect to the new strategy. Basically what is required is similar to other regulatory agencies, namely, licensing producers, registering authorized dealers at specified supply points, licensing growers for personal use, creating a database of authorized drug users, and making provision for penalties – because as with other areas of human activity, there will always be some defaulters, and the sanctions must be such as to act as a strong deterrent. With the legal and other luminaries we have in this country, surely this is not rocket science? And this must be, at the political level, a bipartisan affair.  

As the Prime minister remarked in the answer to the PQ, the matter must not be given a political twist. The MMM, which joined in the justified salvo by Nita Deerpalsing requesting explanations from the Finanacial Secretray Ali Mansoor, should see this as an opportunity to contribute in getting the country rid of a problem that it also, alone, has never been able to solve.  

Is the MMM prepared to help the country by supporting a move in this direction by the government of the day? 

* Published in print edition on 1 April 2011

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