INCB: Wrong on Drugs Policy

It’s a while since I’ve said anything about drug policy, but a story in the BMJ a couple of weeks ago caught my eye.  It would appear that the International Narcotics Control Board, a UN agency, has issued a report in which it advocates the prohibition of whole classes of substance:

National governments need to adopt generic bans to control entire groups of substances that can be used to make designer drugs, a United Nations report has said.  According to the 2010 annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board, designer drugs are being produced faster and in growing numbers than ever before and are easily available over the internet. Designer drugs imitate the effects of ecstasy, amphetamines, and cocaine.


In the UK the government banned the drug mephedrone last March after several deaths were attributed to it. But the board says that manufacturers get round laws by slightly modifying the structure of drugs, making it difficult for governments to keep pace with changes.

Hamid Ghodse, President of the Vienna based Board, said, “Given the health risks posed by the abuse of designer drugs, we urge governments to adopt national control measures to prevent the manufacture of, trafficking in and abuse of these substances.”

This approach is wrong-headed: banning things does not make the demand go away – it just means that the production evolves. Banning whole classes of substance doesn’t seem to be paradigmatically different on this score; a ban on substances of sort A, even if enforced and effective (stop laughing), simply shifts focus to sort B.

And none of this takes any account of whether such bans really are wise: another recent story in the BMJ spelled out the sad history of the mephedrone ban in the UK in response to media pressure (remember this piece in The Sun, gleefully taken down here?  More seriously, remember the sheepish way in which this was reported?).  Nevertheless, the report falls for stories about the drug’s having led to deaths, although it provides no footnotes or checkable references (which’d incur a HUGE penalty from me in a student essay – why are UN agencies exempt from referencing rules?), and recommends that

Governments that have not yet done so should take immediate action to place mephedrone and other “designer drugs” under national control, in order to be able to prosecute the persons responsible for their distribution. (p 44)

But why?  I’ll come to what I take to be the reasoning in a moment: it’s remarkably poor.

What’s even more dispiriting about this is that the report points out that mephedrone “appears to have no legitimate use” as though that supports the argument in favour of a ban.  One wonders what the sense of the word “legitimate” here is; if there are places where the drug has not been banned, then its use is legitimate: there’s nothing else for it to be.  If “legitimate” is taken in a more everyday sense – “approved of”, say – then the point is dogmatically puritanical.  After all, getting out of your box is likely to strike some people as completely legitimate, and whether they use mephedrone or merlot to do it is a mere detail.  But even if getting high isn’t legitimate in this broad sense – well, that’s still not a reason to ban something.

It’s worth saying again in this light that current bans are not, in my opinion, not only not wise; they’re positively unwise, and counterproductive.  It’s interesting that the introduction to the INCB’s report talks about the problems raised by the drug trade in respect of corruption, public health and government stability – and, I take it, it’s worries about law enforcement that motivate calls for mephedrone to be banned.  All of these problems could be eased by abandoning prohibition, though: and adding mephedrone – or anything hitherto legal – to the list of banned substances simply creates more opportunity for corruption, public health problems, and government instability.  Public health is much easier to protect when the people who’re in most need aren’t at risk of being criminalised by virtue of the very condition that makes them needy.  Corruption vanishes when a trade can be brought above ground.  Governments become more stable when there’s no need for a secret criminal economy – and the people who provide the raw material of the drug trade become better off, too.  (Afghanistan would be a much happier place if the opium farmers could sell their stuff legitimately, instead of having to sell it for a pittance to smugglers while paying protection money to Taliban lunatics.  On p 121, the INCB “urges […] Governments […] to strengthen their efforts to prevent a resurgence of illicit opium poppy cultivation”.  But what about the possibility that illicit cultivation could be eliminated completely, with better consequences overall, by making it licit?)

It is instructive, I think, that the Board “welcomes the statement of the Government of the United States that it firmly opposes the legalization of cannabis” (p 63); the main objection to the licensing of cannabis for medical use offered seems to be that it is not compatible with the 1961 Convention.  The board seems not to entertain the possibility that the problem lies with the convention, rather than the relaxation of restrictions on cannabis.  But this attitude seems to me to prevail through the whole of the document.  We can’t rethink drugs policy radically because that’d mean rethinking it radically.  And that’d shred a lot of the justification for a lot of government policies.

And yet it’s utterly ridiculous that the pat response to a failure of prohibition is more of the same (viz mephedrone: places that haven’t banned it really should, because… er… if they don’t, they won’t have.  Yeah!).  It’s like they’re addicted.

  • Keith Tayler

    All very true.

    I have not done the figures but I am pretty certain that the number of people that are killed and injured by feuding drug gangs exceeds the number that are killed and injured by using drugs (I am prepared to use the stats The Sun and the prohibitionists use). If drugs were legalised the number of people who die from overdoses, poisoning, HIV/AIDS, etc. would be greatly reduced. Money saved on the futile attempts to control the drugs market and the revenue it would generate if legalised could transform the world economy. One wonders how much longer the world must suffer this carnage and waste.

  • Brian Hanstein

    If the legitimately electected officials of a given community (e.g., a nation) legislate that a given substance should be controlled, then within that coummunity, the decision may be enforced. If the electorate don't like it, they can elect officials who vote/legislate otherwise. That being said, special-interest groups often exert great power and influence contrary to both the interests and the wishes of the electorate. In spite of that power/influence local community groups CAN (over the course of time……….often a long time) exert their own influence. Examples include automobile seat belts, tobacco controls (hail the English beer-and-smoking garden) and even gun control (albeit episodic and short-lived). If discovered or invented to day, tobacco products and liquor would be treated and controlled like drugs. Their use and approval are historical accidents. They are directly involved in death and pain and suffering to a great scale; but, they are part of our culture. They are taxed and provide tax revenue, employment and salaries. They are the devils we know. The legalization and taxing of now-controlled substances is the devil we don't know. Is it worth a try? Perhaps. The crime waves caused by 1920's-30's prohibition seem to indicate that legalisation may be the answer. However, the end of prohibition did not lead to an arcadia of strictly social drinkers. Even today, the taxation of cigarettes (and forcing people to risk the elements to grab a smoke) has not ended the use of smoking. Just because other abused substances are legalized does not mean that additional controlled substances should be legalized and taxed. It might mean less productiona and sale-related crime, but that does not ensured that the health of the given community will not suffer, and perhaps severely. Communites, like people, have their demons to deal with. Do we want to risk feeding the demons of a new generation with yet another endless product line of consumer drugs? I don't know if they could handle it.

  • I think that one of the special interests you need to mention is the fact that governments have a strong – and increasingly strong – incentive to stick to the policy of the past few decades because all of them, and all parties, have been so univocal; a radical change would make them all look very silly indeed. (Ben Goldacre has a nice – and anger-making – column on how the US spiked a WHO study into cocaine use in the 1990s here:… ).

    It's possibly true that tobacco and alcohol would be regulated much more harshly today were they new now; but that doesn't tell us that they ought to be. And I'm not against regulation per se; I think it's very good that food standards and cold rememdies are regulated. Regulation is compatible with legality, though. And legality means you can deal with the public health aspects much more rigorously, while minimising the public costs in other ways.

    Finally, it's not clear at all that the health of the community would suffer. This is partly because a lot of the things regulated are pretty safe anyway: ecstasy, for example, is a class A despite being, if not quite safe, then not really dangerous at all. Portugal's experience is good evidence of the resilience of public health, too: their very lenient drugs policy has been, as far as I'm aware, pretty much an unmitigated success. Finally, I read recently – I can't remember where, but I'll edit this later if that changes – that London had a few hundred heroin addicts in the late 1960s, when a liberal prescription policy was used. That was abandoned in the 1970s – and a black market began. By the 1980s, a few hundred stable users had become around 300 000 chaotic users. Now, I realise that there's a cause/ correlation problem here, but still: the pattern is striking. And, of course, those chaotic users are much more at risk because they can never be wholly sure what they're injecting. Regulation would be a good thing for them.

  • Keith Tayler

    'Do we want to risk feeding the demons of a new generation with yet another endless product line of consumer drugs?' Past, present and future generations have had, have and will have little difficulty in buying drugs. Would it not be better if they bought them legally and knew that they were getting?

    Not sure about the 'demon' business. I have taken many drugs (including the 'demon' drink) and have never felt like I was feeding a demon. There are some people that do, but I am not sure I have to change my life for them.

    Not sure whether tobacco and liquor would be controlled if they were discovered today. It is a common arguement, but possible world arguements seldom work. If tobacco and liquor had not been discovered we can by pretty sure society and the human mind would be very different. Not sure I would like it – but who knows? Of course the clean healthy types of this other world might take to them with relish. The arguement is predicated upon the assumption that drugs are always bad. Clearly that is incorrect.

  • Keith Tayler


    You are right about the 1960s heroin use. I worked on an emergency psychiatric ward in Brighton that was also used to assess drug users! Brighton, that has always attracted drug users, had about 50 registered users and of course very few unregistered (no point in paying for it). Most users had jobs and were addicted for about nine years. In short, it was not a big problem.