Polak's question: Round 3

Polak challanged Costa in Barcelona again -Costa says UNODC is preparing its official response

It seems as if HCLU’s Silenced NGO Partner video (with more than 35.000 views on YouTube) has caused some disturbances in still water.

The video is an ideological duel between Mr. Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the Dutch psychiatrist Mr. Frederick Polak. Our video was not only popular among Dutch government officials, but also among staff members of various UN agencies, including UNODC itself.

Mr. Costa recently travelled to the Netherlands, where he met with local authorities and made an official visit to a world famous Dutch coffee shop, as well as a controlled injection site. Maybe it is an exageration to say that this visit was provoked by our video, but it seems the UN drug czar and his office feels pressure, from civil society, to acknowledge the drug situation in the Netherlands. The Dutch drug policy model is the only living proof in our world that the legal availability of cannabis does not necessarily result in skyrocketing demand. As Mr. Polak pointed out earlier, the sole existence of the coffee shop model is a threat to the global prohibiton regime.


The assumption that UNODC feels the urge to respond to criticisms was affirmed by Mr. Costa at the International Harm Reduction Conference this year, held in Barcelona from May 11-15. (Read a summary of his speech below).

After Costa’s speech, Polak had the opportunity to challenge him again. This time, Polak reformulated his question, asking Costa what he learnt from his visit to the Netherlands. Mr. Costa answered that the city of Amsterdam “is characterized by rates of drug addiction –I'm referring to cannabis use –three times greater than anywhere else in Europe”.

UNODC is preparing a discussion paper on this issue, to be published soon, which concludes: “availability causes use”. This paper has not been published yet. Nevertheless, we asked Dr. Alex Wodak, a well-known Australian psychiatrist and researcher and longtime supporter of harm reduction, to comment on this statement.

Dr. Wodak says that Mr. Costa is “simply objectively wrong” in claiming that the level of use is higher in the Netherlands than in the rest of Europe. He also referred to a study by Peter Cohen and Craig Reinarmen, based on a comperative analysis of drug policies and the levels of cannabis use in two cities: Amsterdam and San Francisco. The researchers found no evidence that different drug policy approaches had a significant impact on the level of cannabis use. Surprisingly and unexpectedly, the prevalence of cannabis use is higher in the United States despite its tough War on Drugs policy. The Cohen-Reinarmen studz states:

"The overall response rate of the San Francisco prevalence survey was 52.7%, which yielded a sample of 891.28 Of these respondents, 349 reported that they had used cannabis 25 or more times ( 39.2% of the population sample and 3 times the prevalence found in the Amsterdam sample) ..."

Craig Reinarman, Peter D.A. Cohen and Hendrien L. Kaal, "The Limited Relevance of Drug Policy: Cannabis in Amsterdam and in San Francisco"American Journal of Public Health| May 2004,Vol 94, No. 5, 837.

This means that cannabis use levels in the "punitive" San Francisco were 3 times higher than in the "liberal" Amsterdam

Moreover, 51% of people who had smoked cannabis in San Francisco reported that they were offered heroin, cocaine or amphetamine the last time they purchased cannabis. In contrast, only 15% of Amsterdam residents who had ingested marijuana reported the same.  What matters is not simply consumption levels, points out Dr. Wodak, but the harms caused by drugs and drug policies. The indicators of death, disease and corruption are much better in the Netherlands than in Sweden for instance, a country praised by UNODC for its “succesful” drug policy.

Read our blog on the cannabis related claims of UNODC

Mr. Costa's full speech

On Thursday, Mr. Costa addressed the conference in the most progressive speech he has ever made. (We had initially heard that the title of his speech was “Harm Reduction: A Controversial Issue.” This was eventually modified by members of his staff one day before the speech was given). Mr. Costa noted that the drug control system focused mostly on law enforcement in the past couple of decades, rather than on public health, causing “suspected but unintended” consequences.

“The first and foremost unintended consequence was that of public health, which actually is implied in the drug conventions as the first principle, was pushed in the background, and was more honoured in lipservice and rhetorics than in practice,” said Mr. Costa.

“Indeed, when it comes to drug control, and looking again at the reality or at the budget commissions in our countries, spending on public security has been a multiple of several times what was spent on public health”.

Instead of a comprehensive and health-centered staregy drug policies chosed to pursue short term, ideology-based solutions, leaving “the public confused and drug addicts neglected”. Therefore Mr. Costa cautioned the conference “to go back to the roots of drug control, read the conventions once again, apply the conventions exhaustively, and put health at the center stage of drug control”.

Though his dream is a world free of drugs and poverty, Mr. Costa acknowledged that there is no chance to stop drug trafficking in the short term. Because there are 25 million people heavily dependent on drugs, we need to implement systems of harm reduction, as well as supply and demand reduction.

“In addition to alternative development, so that we stop the farmers, law enforcement, so that we stop traffickers, prevention and treatment, so as to prevent people from falling to the drugnet of drug addiction...we must mitigate the negative consequenes of drugs, both for those who suffer from dependence, as well as for society at large.” said the head of UNODC.

“In particular we have to mitigate the risk that drug abuse will lead at least in some countries to the HIV pandemic related to injecting drug use.” He reported that the HIV/AIDS department of UNODC is the fastest growing program of the agency, and invited the audience to applaud for Christian Krol (UNODC’s coordinator for HIV/AIDS) and his team.

One of his remarks seemed to be a reference to his debate with Mr. Polak: “We want results, not discussion, not rhetorics, not endless debates.” He criticized again fashion models “who snort or sniff or lick drugs”, but yet are idolized by the media. Nevertheless, Mr. Costa quoted the words of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes”. He repeated his statement made first at the CND in March on the condemnation of death penalty against drug offenders: “I strongly believe that altough drugs kills we should not kill because of drugs”.

Mr. Costa invited NGOs to participate in the discussion forum organized by the Vienna NGO Committee in July 2008. This Committee aims to catalyze civil society contribution to the UNGASS review process.

As a personal note, I appreciate the recent positive changes in UNODC’s attitudes to harm reduction and people who use drugs. However, I think there are at least two major contradictions in this speech.

Firstly, Mr. Costa calls for an end to the neglect of "drug addicts" (not a very nice term) and respect for their human rights –yet at the same time, he does not condemn criminal laws that are major factors behind the discrimination and stigmatization of drug users.

Secondly, he says public health should be restored to its place at the heart of drug control. Contrastly, however, he claims his agency is “not a public health institution”. If drug control is a public health quest, how comes that the UN agency responsible for coordinating global drug control efforts is not a public health agency? I believe in progess, and I hope that these controversies are only symptoms of the infantile sickness of the drug control regime, which is moving from prohibition to harm reduction. 

Posted by Peter Sarosi

If you would like to comment on this article, please go to the mirror page at our drug policy site, Drugreporter.


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