Policies towards mind-altering drugs are controversial and vary among countries and cultures. Many nations feel that the United Nations should be a forum where anti-drug issues can be discussed openly and "objectively". During the 1990s I participated frequently in U.N. sponsored research projects. This essay summarize what has been a challenging and exciting experience and raises many questions about the U.N.'s capacity to do and or fund "objective" drug research. This is so because of pressures on the U.N. from drug-policy setting countries, lack of independent funds for the U.N. drug policy agencies, the structure and internal dynamics of the U.N. bureaucracies, and the background of the involved U.N. staff. As a result of these factors, the U.N. has promoted a repressive anti-drug agenda and does not allow open debate of many of key anti-drug issues currently discussed in many countries. This is unfortunate because the U.N. has the largest amount of information about illicit drugs anywhere in the world and can play a key role improving anti-drug policies that currently are unsatisfactory to both, drug hawks and doves.
Mind-altering drugs have presented a policy challenge to every society. People are tempted and attracted to their use but they can generate large social costs. Furthermore, their transactions and consumption are based on consensual relations, which make it difficult to control. Because of these characteristics of mind-altering drugs, every society has developed their own way to deal with them. Some have appealed to religion to limit their use, others to national security reasons, still others have identified their consumption with "inferior" native cultures, and many have ritualized their use to allow consumption minimizing the possible social costs. Interestingly, within each society and across societies the treatment of various mind-altering drugs has not been uniform. Thus, the treatment of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, opium, etc. has varied in time and space. The point to highlight is simply that the particular institutions and values of each society have conditioned the way in which they have coped with mind-altering drugs. There has never been a uniform way on a global scale to confront them.
Illicit drugs' issues have many dimensions including at least morals, ethics, public health, economics and business, social, anthropological, environmental, chemical, agricultural, legal and political aspects. The analysis of these issues also requires the study and application of statistics, history and other analytical tools. Furthermore, the international nature of the illicit drug market also means that many researchers look at drug issues through their particular cultural and national prisms. The policy drug problem is multidimensional and complex. Policies have an impact and/or depend on all the dimensions listed. When policies are formulated taking into consideration only some dimensions, they frequently generate effects in other dimensions that act at cross-purposes with the stated policy goals. For example: forced coca eradication, a policy inspired mainly on moral arguments to repress illegal crops, antagonizes and alienates peasants, raises coca prices, increases the profitability of illegal crops and encourages more coca plantings and environmental damage as old forest is cut to accommodate the new plantings. The strength of these effects will depend on the structure of peasant communities where eradication takes place, their political organization, and other aspects. In other words, the policy effects depend on economic, social, anthropological, political and other dimensions of the problem. Not surprisingly, when these are not taken into account, policies are said, rather euphemistically, to have "unintended consequences" (Tullis, 1995) when in reality they have been flawed from the start.
The illicit drug policy literature frequently acknowledges that there is no "silver bullet" that is, that no single policy will "solve" the "drug problem". The "war on drugs" mentality that pervades many policy makers leads them to argue that, therefore, it is necessary to do a full-fledged attack on all aspects of the illegal business. This approach implicitly assumes that as it is frequently the case in a regular war, all anti-drug policies complement each other. Unfortunately, since this is not a military war but a social phenomenon, this is frequently not the case.
I use "objective" in the title to this article to acknowledge that illicit drug policy research is frequently deeply influenced by ideology. Indeed, this is a field in which the results of many studies are pre-determined by the values and morals of those doing or financing the research. Many supporters of current repressive policies do so based on their beliefs that mind altering illegal drugs are evil or sinful in themselves. Therefore, they are to be eliminated irrespective of costs. Many critics of those policies do so based on their libertarian or Marxist ideologies. For libertarians it is none of the government business to criminalize consensual transactions and behaviors and for Marxists repressive polices are the result of the capitalists' attempts to maximize profits and subjugate the proletariat.
It may be argued that it is virtually impossible to eliminate all biases from illicit drug research, however, any social scientist in contrast to a social activist, has two responsibilities: to distance him or herself from the politics involved and to spell out his own biases and prejudices, that is, the implicit assumptions in his or her approach at the issue to be researched. Only this way the limitations of the study and the meaning of its conclusions are clear.
It is widely recognized that American policies, highly influenced by the peculiar puritanical way in which the United States look at mind-altering drugs, have had a significant effect on international policies and United Nations conventions. A frequently stated American goal is to achieve a drug-free society. Thus, slogans such as "war on drugs" and "zero-tolerance" have been used to describe drug policies or policy goals. Not surprisingly, the United States imposes hard long punitive sentences on what in many parts of the world are relatively minor crimes. At the same time the American approach also makes it very difficult to evaluate and modify policies. If drugs policies are part of a holy war on drugs, their failure does not mean that they have to be changed. When fighting evil one might fail, but must continue the good fight. In other words, if punitive policies do not show substantial positive effects, one should continue and strengthen them to confront the evil adversary. Any attempt to review policies is suspected as an attempt to yield to the enemy.
The international conventions signed many years ago are a straight jacket on drug policies as they attempt to standardize policies in the world. Since the 1961 convention was signed many changes have taken place. New drugs have appeared, new countries and actors have become important players in the illicit drug markets, knowledge about drug consumption and production has increased substantially and new links between illegal drugs and other health problems like Aids and hepatitis have appeared. One interesting question is whether the United Nations can be a place where those changes and new conditions can be taken into consideration and drug policies can be debated openly despite the international conventions. In other words, should international drug policies be dynamic and reflect increased knowledge and changed conditions, or should they be static and reflect past dogmas?
During the last decade I was fortunate to have participated in three United Nations funded research projects on illegal drugs. In the early 1990s I was a member of a multi-country research project sponsored by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) and the United Nations University (UNU) coordinated by professor LaMond Tullis from Brigham Young University. In the mid-1990s I coordinated a large research project in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and during 1999-2000 I was research coordinator in the Global Programme Against Money Laundering (GPML) of the Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP) of the United Nations in Vienna. In this capacity, at the request of UN Undersecretary Pino Arlacchi, for a few months I coordinated the publication of the UN World Drug Report 2000. These three experiences have ranged from relatively successful to greatly frustrating and have made me extremely skeptical about the United Nations' ability to fund "objective" policy research on illegal drugs. This unfortunately, is not surprising since the United Nations is a political and diplomatic organization and drug issues are very controversial.
II. The UNRISD research project
In early 1991 I was invited to write a book on illegal drugs in Colombia as part of a multi-country illicit drug research project funded by UNRISD and coordinated by Professor LaMond Tullis. Other countries studied were: Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Pakistan. Another study dealt with Eastern Kentucky in the United States. UNRISD is a small, low profile, little known, United Nations research center that does not have technical assistance programs. The project was run on a shoestring, had a low budget and researchers were paid the equivalent of two months' salary for their efforts. The team met twice in Geneva, where UNRISD is located, once at the start of the project and once when the project was close to completion. The project coordinator provided some general guidelines but on the whole, individual authors had flexibility to design their books. In this project I never felt that the academic integrity of the project was compromised by its funding sources. The project coordinator, however, asserted on several occasions that the United Nations Drug Control Programe (UNDCP) considered the project an infringement on its turf and tried to dissuade UNRISD from funding it. At the end of the project country authors presented their results at UNDCP headquarters in Vienna to help smooth out bureaucratic frictions between the two UN agencies..
The project produced books on Bolivia (Painter, 1994), Colombia (Thoumi, 1995), Mexico (Toro, 1995), Appalachia (Clayton, 1995), Burma (Renard, 1996), and a summary volume (Tullis, 1995). These studies varied significantly in coverage, approach and methodology. The Pakistan, Peru, Thailand and Laos studies did not produce manuscripts that the research coordinator considered finished products and were left as drafts. Professor Tullis believes that three of the country authors had the ability to produce good books but did not do so. I discussed this failure with the authors of two of those country studies and concluded that the small payment was one main reason why they did not complete their projects because they simply needed to support themselves. UNRISD gave me intellectual property rights in Spanish and I got my book translated and published in that language (Thoumi, 1994). On the whole, the UNRISD project was quite successful and contributed to the understanding of the illegal drug phenomena in various settings.
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