Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Fountainhead of Drug Prohibition

By James E. Gierach

    I recently returned to Chicago from a week in Vienna, Austria, having attending the 55th annual session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND).  Vienna is the home of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).  It was quite an experience to be at the fountainhead of world drug prohibition.  Fog, demons and Al Capone-ghosts circled and crowded the dark skies over the Vienna International Centre (“the VIC”) like something out of a Harry Potter novel but the demons of drug policy were real.

    A month before my UN drug trip, I was a guest speaker, among others, in Mexico City on behalf of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization that is anti-drug use but even more anti-drug war.  I had been invited to speak in Mexico City by a group of business and community leaders who were at their wits end over the drug prohibition corruption and violence, a group called Mexico Unido Contra La  Delincuencia.

    Antonio Mazzitelli, the UNODC representative for the region including Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, spoke before me and said, fearfully, we cannot legalize drugs because legalization would make drugs more available and worsen public health.  I spoke immediately after him, and I criticized the “U.N. /Al Capone Drug Policy Paradigm,” because world prohibition history and world news evidenced on a daily basis that prohibition harmed public health more than drugs.

    During my presentation, I asked Mazzitelli how public health was aided by the deaths of 50,000 people killed in Mexico in drug cartel violence since 2006 when Pres. Filipe Calderon accelerated the Mexican war on drugs, funded since 2008 with hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars via the “Merida Initiative.”  I asked what was it about U.N. prohibition policy that amassed 15 tons of methamphetamines that were seized by Mexican authorities in one bust while we speakers were in town.  And I asked him how such a policy helped the public health.  I implored Mr. Mazzitelli to take a message back to the U.N. that Latin America, the U.S., and the world had had it with the failed drug war and the auditorium in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City rocked with applause.  The “End the drug war” message was conveyed but would it be delivered to prohibition headquarters at the UN?

    For me, the importance of the Mexico City trip was my heightened appreciation for the fact that three international UN treaties, called conventions, are at the heart of the world’s war on drugs.  The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 consolidated earlier drug treaties and prohibited the production and supply of narcotic drugs, including opium, coca, heroin, morphine and marijuana, with limited exception for medical use, and empowered the World Health Organization (WHO) to add and remove drugs from the four schedules of substances appended to the treaty.  Two additional international UN treaties expanded the scope and breadth of prohibition: the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.

    Wikipedia succinctly notes that the United States and the United Kingdom enacted the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, respectively, to fulfill treaty obligations voluntarily assumed by them.  Other treaty Member States did likewise, all such nations now mutually entangled and cemented in “Just say no” prohibition glue and goo.  I took my new appreciation of the UN as the fountainhead of the world’s drug prohibition crisis to Vienna last week, hoping the Mazzitelli message would be delivered but neither he nor the message was anywhere to be found.

    In preparation for the Vienna trip, I read the UN documents that would provide the foundation and focal point for UN-delegate discourse and action regarding the world drug situation.  My reading included the 30-page reports by the Secretariat that detailed page after page of increased drug use and escalated drug trafficking worldwide.

    Given the bloody, fertile drug prohibition soil of the world and the Secretariat reports – maybe, just maybe, the Mexico City message and Latin American calls for an end to the drug-prohibition war would be heard and discussed in committee-of-the-whole and plenary sessions of the UN.

    But maybe not.  The United States sponsored a resolution celebrating a 100-year-old opium treaty (The Hague Opium Treaty), the world's first drug treaty and, in the "wherefore" conclusions of the resolution, the US called for the reaffirmation of the three prohibitionist UN-drug treaties, the rope and gallows from which the UN member states swing by the neck.  The resolution would have been fine if it had called for the "repeal" rather than "reaffirmation" of the three UN drug conventions, a course error of only 180-degrees.

    The end of the story is not a happy one, for the status quo prevailed.  Prohibition was reaffirmed miraculously without any dissent and without a single vote.  As encouraged by 55th Session documents to present a “single voice,” the delegates moved commas and periods and labored over word-choice, but reaffirmed prohibition as the drug policy of the world without a hitch.  Countervailing forces, messages, and drug-policy-reform demonstrators could not even gain admission to UN premises and prohibition ground zero.  Admission was limited to those with badges and invitations.  And if there was media present in the VIC “Press Room,” somehow it already knew that nothing happens there.  And nothing did.

    Disturbingly, in Vienna, I watched the fate of the world and its public health, safety, and welfare steered by a roomful, or two, of delegates who effectively acted outside the scrutiny of the world, behind a translucent curtain made of world drug-policy obliviousness, boredom, and disinterest.  With immunity, the process picked the pockets of the world taking peace and quiet, sobriety, freedom, human rights, good health, the Golden Rule, national sovereignty, cultural, historic and (in some cases, e.g. Bolivia) sacred tradition from them, ostensible by consent.

    Delegates only discussed the “safe” drug policy topics – treatment, prevention, education and law enforcement, and the need for more.  But they did not discuss the economics of drug prohibition that made illicit drugs the more valuable than gold.  Drug prohibition economics was the elephant in the room never mentioned.  As I watched the delegates finish their work and seal the world’s prohibition fate for another year, I could hear the loud laugh of Al Capone, the snickers of Mexican drug cartels, and the thunderous applause of the drug-war benefactors, grantees and consultants.  The drug-war gravy-train riders were secure for another year.

    Eerie, ghoulish, chilling – it was to see and hear what the delegates could not.

    Now, back home in Chicago, I again see the price we must pay around the world for our dear beloved drug-prohibition policies.  This week, news that Mexican police found 10 heads severed from their bodies in Acapulco as the search for the bodies continued; news of a six-year-old shot and killed in Chicago gang violence along with six others shooting deaths here with dozens more shot and wounded.  Today, Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy says that the “gang menace is getting worse and the city needs to fight harder” to respond to the “bloodbath of violence.”

    Society continues to choose the hell of drug prohibition over the legalization, control, and regulation of substances, and the price for that delusional choice is steep.

James E. Gierach, a former prosecutor in Cook County, IL, is a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (


  1. Your reasoning is impeccable. I can only add that in response to a gentleman like yourself, full of experience on "both sides of the coin", the world today seems even more oblivious and intent upon avoidance of simple, common sense. Denial is rampant and self-interest, including governments as well as big business, is too often the winner.

    Thanks for forging ahead and representing this cause.

  2. I think a big part of why drug prohibition hasn't gone the way of alcohol prohibition is that alcohol use is deeply ingrained in our cultural customs,and is acceptable to most people.Drug use,however,is associated with the undesirables in society.

  3. I posted this in my thread[justjoe's ideas] at PENRICK dot com.


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