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UNODC World Drugs Report 2009


For a number of years, the World Drugs Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been made up of three parts. Part one is a review of the current situation for the production and consumption of illicit substances and part three contains all the supporting tables. Part two takes a close look at one aspect of the drugs and crime situation.  

In previous years, part two has looked at cannabis, transnational trafficking and a centennial review of efforts to control drugs. Part two of the World Drugs Report 2009 is entitled ‘Confronting Unintended Consequences: Drug Control and the Criminal Black Market’.

UNODC Recognises the Demand for an End to Prohibition

The UNODC has, finally, woken up to the fact that prohibition in the absence of demand reduction creates opportunities for criminals and that the greater the efforts to enforce prohibition are, the more lucrative the business becomes.  

Of course, as we know from the situation regarding the 1995 WHO ‘information package’ on cocaine, while the USA retains its prohibitionist stance, UN bodies must also be seen to support prohibition. As a result, the UNODC looks at many of the issues surrounding crime and prohibition in a detailed and rational way but is forced to reach bizarre conclusions which are not supported by the evidence in order to stay ‘on message’.  

What follows is not intended to be a full critique of the report but, rather, a look at a few key points where, to use legal jargon, the UNODC misdirects itself.

Demand in a Legal Free Market

The premise of the second part of the World Drugs Report 2009, as explained in the preface, is that the alternative to prohibition is a free market with suppliers able to actively encourage consumption. That is not the position of most of the credible voices calling for an end to prohibition. Their position is that drugs should be, at least, as hard to obtain in a regulated environment as they are under prohibition and that every effort should be made to discourage new users and to assist existing users to quit.  

Taking the position that the aim is to encourage drug consumption, the UNODC seeks to show that legalisation would result in a huge increase in use. Taking Bolivia as an example, it says that a far larger proportion of the population smokes than uses cocaine and concludes from this that lower prices in a legal free market would see an explosion of cocaine use. In reaching this conclusion, two important factors are ignored. First, that Bolivia is a coca producing country and anyone wishing to obtain supplies of coca leaf, rather than cocaine, can do so, yet annual prevalence rates for cocaine use in Bolivia have fallen from 1.6% in the 2006 report to .66% for 2009.  

And, second, that tobacco is addictive whereas cocaine is not so no comparison can be made between users of the two substances.  

Thus, having set up the false contention that the aim of anti-prohibitionists is to establish an open free market for drugs, the UNODC fails to demonstrate that such a market would result in a large increase in use for a non-addictive substance.

Protection for Developing Countries

Arguments in favour of the end to prohibition are, according to UNODC, coming from developed western countries where people fail to appreciate the harm which could be done in developing countries.

To try and make this point, the report shows that policing in third world countries is less effective because it enjoys fewer resources. The example chosen is of untaxed supplies of tobacco. Overall, 10% of worldwide tobacco consumption is believed to evade taxation but the figures for Africa and Asia are 15% and 20% respectively, indicating poorer enforcement.

Having established the problems in law enforcement in large parts of the world the report goes on to suggest that part of the answer to the lucrative criminal black market in drugs is ‘using the techniques of problem-oriented policing and situational crime prevention’. In other words, applying sophistication to law enforcement which it has already demonstrated does not exist in many countries.

And Now, the Good News

The report recognises the failings in large parts of the existing system for dealing with both drug users and lower level members of the supply side of the industry. A few quotes suffice to illustrate this point;  

In the end, the criminal justice system is a very blunt instrument for dealing with drug markets.’  

‘Stop jailing petty offenders’  

‘Those willing to risk death by ingesting a kilogram of condom-wrapped cocaine bullets are unlikely to be put off by the possibility of a jail sentence.’  

‘…between a quarter and a half of the population of many countries in Europe and North America has been in possession of illicit drugs at one time or another…..In only a small share of these cases would arrest, and the lifelong stigma it brings, have been appropriate.’  

Commenting on the results, so far, of Portugal’s change in dealing with those found in possession of drugs who now are dealt with by referral to treatment, if appropriate, rather than punishment, the report notes;  

‘Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism. It also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased.’

Social Factors

The report rightly notes the role of political and economic factors in criminal drug markets. It notes that, in some countries, extreme punishment of drug offenders, even for minor possession offences, is used as part of the control mechanism of repressive regimes and points out that many of these punishments violate UN Human Rights conventions.  

It also notes that, in slum areas of the world, living conditions are such that the opportunity to make even small amounts of money by involvement in the supply of drugs outweighs any fear of the punishment which might be the result.  

Similarly, gangs in inner city areas, which seem to be increasing in number and spreading from the developed world into less developed areas, see participation in the supply of drugs as part of their culture and, once criminal records have been obtained, selling small amounts of drugs for little margin may be the only income-generating activity available.  

The report states that;  

‘Removing drugs as an income stream may decrease the attractions of gang membership and result in long-term violence reduction. And the surest way of keeping drugs out of the hands of gangs is to close spatially-linked drug markets.’  

Naturally, UNODC believes that the way to close these markets is by continuing to use methods which have not succeeded in the past 100 years, i.e. law enforcement.

Supply versus Demand

UNODC notes that more effort is put into supply reduction than in reducing demand for drugs and recognises that while there is demand there will be supply.  

It describes the ‘heroin drought’ in Australia where concerted effort by enforcement agencies in a number of countries succeeded in reducing supply to Australia, for a time, to the point that many users could not obtain supplies.  

‘…many addicts went into withdrawal and some appear not to have resumed heroin use; the market remains smaller to this day. By the time connections were resurrected, the market was not nearly as large. The smaller market attracted fewer new users. Violence, drug-related crime, overdoses and general use declined dramatically.’  

What is acknowledged implicitly, but ignored when drawing its conclusions, is that the level of international enforcement activity which created the ‘heroin drought’ could not be sustained and heroin is once again available.  

It is the failure to admit that the ‘war on drugs’ i.e. focussing on supply reduction has not succeeded in 100 years that leads UNODC to conclude that the answer is increased enforcement on the supply side.

Cannabis – An Aside

There is one small point in the report which gives a clear indication of the link between prohibition and increased income for criminal suppliers.  

Talking about those areas of the world where Cannabis sativa grows in the wild and is known as ‘ditchweed’ the report notes;  

‘The eradication of feral cannabis (“ditchweed”) can actually aid illicit cultivators, as it reduces pollination by lower potency strains and, if carried out vigorously enough, allows outdoor cultivation of sinsemilla.’


There has been an overwhelmingly hostile reaction to the World Drugs Report 2009 which has been far greater than that seen in previous years. This may indicate that there is, slowly, a change in opinion over the need to end prohibition and take control of a situation which destroys very many lives; the majority as a result of the legal status of the substances concerned.