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.

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