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October 8, 2008 -- Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Column: The War On Drugs Is A Bust

By Dan Gardner

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Afghanistan is going badly. "We're not going to win this war," said a top British general last week.

Well, pass the smelling salts.

The War on Drugs created Afghanistan's massive illicit drug trade. This trade funds the insurgency, corrupts the government and destabilizes society. But neither the United States nor the United Nations will acknowledge that the War on Drugs is anything less than a roaring success and so they refuse to discuss alternatives to the policy that fuels the whole bloody mess.

And victory eludes us? Well.

Look, the debate about Afghanistan has always bordered on farce. Every serious observer -- including the president of Afghanistan himself -- has said that Afghanistan's illicit drug trade, not the Taliban, is the single greatest threat the country faces. And yet the drug trade has always been treated as a peripheral issue.

Discussion has been scant. It has also been ignorant and vapid. Even the Manley report said nothing intelligent about it. "Coherent counter-narcotic strategies need to be adopted by all relevant authorities," the report sagely recommended, leaving the identity of these marvelous strategies to the reader's imagination.

This failure has many causes but a key one is the simple fact that the primary source of information about the drug trade is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

For the UNODC, the criminal prohibition of drugs is not merely a tool of public policy. It is a cause, a crusade, a faith. One does not question a faith. One promotes it.

And that's what the UNODC does every year when it releases its World Drug Report.

For journalists and politicians the world over, the WDR is the definitive source of information about drugs and drug policy. Any time you read a news story or political statement about drugs in Afghanistan or elsewhere, there's a good chance the WDR was used as a source.

To an extent, that's fine. The WDR has lots of solid data in it.

But the report is primarily an instrument of propaganda. Its purpose is to praise the status quo, bury evidence of failure, and frame the discussion so serious scrutiny of the War on Drugs never happens.

A few examples:

* In the latest edition of the WDR, Antonio Maria Costa, the director of the UNODC, boasts of how Southeast Asia "is now almost opium free." This is a model for Afghanistan, he writes in the preface.

What Costa doesn't mention is that the large declines in opium poppy production in Southeast Asia occurred at the same time as even bigger increases were observed in Afghanistan. This was not a coincidence.

Squeeze a balloon in one place and it bulges elsewhere. When cocaine production was driven down in Bolivia and Peru, it soared in Colombia. When methamphetamine production was suppressed in the United States, it shot up in Mexico. It's perfectly predictable.

Opium has grown in Afghanistan since time immemorial but Afghanistan was never a major source of black market drugs. That started to change in the 1970s, when the balloon was squeezed in Turkey. In the 1980s and 1990s, the squeeze shifted to Southeast Asia and Pakistan.

And today, Afghanistan supplies 93 per cent of the world's illicit opium. And for that, we can thank the very actions which the UNODC says are a model for Afghanistan.

* Thanks to criminal prohibition, the report argues, "the drug problem was dramatically reduced over the past century." Proof lies in the fact that world production of opium fell from 41.4 metric tons to 12.6 metric tons between 1906 -- when the drug was legal almost everywhere -- -- and 2007.

There are several problems here. First, the figure for 1906 is almost certainly inflated, as many observers said at the time.

Second, it ignores the fact that opium's role in medicine, which was huge at the beginning of the 20th century, steadily diminished as it was replaced by other painkillers. To the extent opium production fell, this change is as likely an explanation as prohibition.

* Costa crows that "coca production continues to fall, driven by significant declines in Colombia."

That may sound impressive but notice that Costa didn't say "cocaine" production is declining, only "coca" production (the coca bush is the source of cocaine). He leaves it to the reader to assume that less coca equals less cocaine.

The truth is buried in the guts of the report: Even as fewer acres are being planted with coca, productivity gains have driven cocaine output to record levels.

In 1998, the WDR notes, a United Nations special assembly "urged countries to do more to control drugs." And they did. As a result, Costa writes, "the world drug situation has stabilized and been brought under control."

It's quite a story. Unfortunately, it's not even close to true. In 1998, the UN special assembly set a goal of "eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008."

Over the following 10 years, cocaine output grew 20 per cent and opium production doubled. That's according to the UNODC's own figures.

There lots more examples but I think the point is clear.

Don't be fooled by the UN imprimatur. The World Drug Report is crude propaganda.

Journalists and politicians who take it at face value contribute to the manipulation of public opinion and the stifling of meaningful debate. And that is unacceptable at a time when Canadian soldiers are fighting and dying in the War on Drugs.

Dan Gardner writes Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

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