Peter Cohen (2008), Antonio Costa’s speech opening CND 2008. Amsterdam: CEDRO website.
© Copyright 2008 Peter Cohen. All rights reserved.


Antonio Costa’s speech opening CND 2008


Peter Cohen

At first sight Mr Costa’s speech in march 2008 yields some space for critique of the global drug control system similar to that which we have aired for decades. At second sight the space he allows for referring to this critique is no where followed up with space for a different analysis of the drug use phenomenon and the huge variety in which it occurs. A different analysis that would allow the present one size fits all drug control system to be innovated or diversified at least, at best scrapped in its entirety.

In this short and limited discussion of the Costa speech I will assume the reader has read it.[1]
Its most important words are at the end where he hid a remark of large potential consequences for thousands of prisoners:

Today I propose that Member States extend the concept of harm reduction to include the need to give serious consideration to whether the imposition of capital punishment for drug-related crimes is a best practice.

This remark is courageous inside the killing fields of global drug policy and we should congratulate Costa on having made it, and made it at such a conspicuous location.

All the rest of the speech is conventional wisdom, in as far as the word wisdom applies at all.
It is simply not true as he says that his speech is ‘drafted with the purpose of stimulating debate and promoting fresh thinking’ because he does not allow it to go outside ‘the parameters and the perimeters of the UN Conventions’.

But it is precisely because of the monolithical legality of Treaty drug policies (one the INCB tries to nail on us with relentless vigour) we are in such a deep mess. Fresh thinking should go beyond the obsolete conventions that now span a century, and allow our ways of describing drug use, trade and production other than as self evident problems and criminal acts . What is a problem and crime one day may yield a Nobel prize the next.(Galileo or Savonarola would have won one now, whereas they were criminals during their lifetime in Costa’s homeland.)

Costa critiques those that critique the Treaties saying that

What many people do not see, or perhaps intentionally fail to recognize, are the achievements of the drug control system over the last century, and the improvements over the last decade.

That’s right, he says achievements! The Treaties are supposed, by Costa, to have caused the fact that no more than 0,5% of the world population are problem drug users,plus the fact that non-problem drug users are 250 milion, only 5% of the world population. So he says that 90% of the drug users have no problems with it, something we have known all along. Problem drug use is an exception, not the rule, despite the drug policies that marginalise, pathologise and criminalise any user all over the world.So, Costa could easily have said we do not need a UN based Inquisition that constructs a universal problem out of what is mostly not.

Moreover, Costa fails to remark that both life time and current use of some illicit drugs, in our present world has grown in countries where it was almost non existant in the days the Treaties were being written. We see large historic and cultural differences over time and place, although in countries where opiate use was culturally embedded (Persia,Afganistan, Pakistan) prevalence is still far higher than in countries where it was introduced in the 19th century. In the latter countries it is probably unchanged in spite of a huge efffort to stamp out even its low level of prevalence (See Courtwright Dark Paradise). Drugs like cocaine and cannabis were almost unknown in the 19th century in the West, but now are normal for large parts of Western countries.In spite of the Treaties and the early onset of illegality for the last mentioned drugs, their use has constantly grown during the life time of the Treaties and there is no reason to assume this growth will stop.

Novel drugs take time to become part of the cultural furniture that serves the many spaces of recreational behaviour but not all novel drugs are succesful in doing so. This means that culturally novel drugs like cocaine or cannabis will for a long time know a level of prevalence that is far lower than classic culturally embedded drugs like alcohol and tobacco. This is true everywhere, and was true also before the Treaties. And no one knows if or when novel drugs will become as embedded as the classic ones, but cannabis is certainly on the way to become as household as apple pie, alcohol and aspirin. Treaty or no Treaty, other new drugs may follow.

Where Costa sees the ‘achievements’ of the Drug Treaties some one else might simply see nothing but ruins. Costa fails to try to convince us of why one would even superficially allow his ‘achievements’ to exist. 'What ever the cause, the result is what counts’ is his grand support for the achievement thesis.

Is he being naïve when in talking about the possible effects of UNGASS (or the Treaties in general) he says that

whether this is a coincidence, or a cause-effect relation, as a social scientist I cannot tell.

As a social scientist he should hear alarm bells go off all over the place! If he really wants to speak of ‘achievements’ of the Treaties as a scientist he should feel obliged to offer more than just their postulation.

In fact, there is nothing. As I said elsewhere, in my review of the UNODC report on the Swedish drug policy, there is not a shred of evidence that Swedish drug policy has any of the ‘succesfull’ effects that are ascribed to it [2]. The same is true for the alleged effects world wide of the Treaties,

few United Nations Conventions have delivered similarly impressive results.

Not a shred of evidence they produced the situation that Costa describes as a Treaty achievement, that is that culturally alien drugs have a lower level of prevalence than embedded drugs. And who would believe his claim that the Treaties produced a world wide ‘slashing of drug cultivation’?

Plenty of evidence though of the disasters the Treaties produced, and Costa does not shy away from mentioning them. His name for those disasters is not ‘disaster’, but ‘unintended consequence’. He probably did not borrow this term from Lamond Tullis who wrote a detailed study for UNRISD about massive drug productions in North and South America under this title. [3] Lamond Tullis not only shows how and why criminalisation of drug production destroys cultures, regions,governing systems and populations, but that they will continue to do so. After reading this UN study or seeing the ongoing rise of availibity at ever lower prices of drugs, the claim that drug production is ‘slashed’ by the achievements of the Treaties can not be more than a rather tasteless joke. I recommend the Tullis study to Costa, and his staff.

A 'rowdy pro drug conference'

In his speech Costa mentions his performance at the DPA conference for drug policy reformers in 2007 in the destroyed city of New Orleans. He was applauded there for coming into the lions den. But everybody there opposed the Treaty policies in lucid and learned argumentations, to which he was helpless to reply. [4] Now saying to the opposition he had in New Orleans that ‘legalisation of an anti social behaviour is a poison pill, not a silver bullet’ is an unnecesary slap in the face of the seriousness with which he was received by the drug users and non drug users present at this conference. It is superficial and an evasion of discussion. No legaliser has ever said legalization is a silver bullet- there is no silver bullet- , and Costa fails to give any evidence for his statements that drug use is ‘anti social behaviour’ or that legalizing it would be any where near a ‘poison pill’. This been there done that banality , of the kind we always hear from the pitiful liars working for the American Drug Czar office ONDCP or the White House, does not belong in a UN body that claims it is open to ‘fresh discussions’.

I will finish this short exposé quoting the statement Costa made that

Therefore, States must live up to their commitments, not least the UNGASS Declaration. A lax approach in one country or for one type of drug - like cannabis - can unravel the entire system.

I agree fully with the last phrase of this statement, and the fear it represents. The Dutch for instance have shown that allowing universal acces for adults to cannabis has not produced high levels of prevalence. In fact, use of all drugs in the Netherlands is at average or below average levels compared to surrounding countries. This indeed unravels the rigid belief system that maintains without shame or evidence that putting an Inquisition over access will curb use. [5] The Dutch show that open access is just one of many factors, and probably not even an important one.The Dutch show that drug use levels vary between cities inside the Low Countries with differences larger than between countries in Europe although access in Holland is about the same everywhere . Costa can not explain in terms of the belief system that grounds the Treaties why the Swedes use twice as much cannabis as the Portugese or the British twice as much as the Dutch.

The Dutch did not intend to show anything, just curb stupidity and criminilisation, but nonetheless their experience teaches us such important lessons that studying them might ‘unravel the entire system’, something Costa quite naturally fears and tries to prevent. Therefor there is no room for ‘fresh’ discussion , on the contrary. Apart from his couregeous remark on the death penalty, the Costa speech is stale beer in the guise of a hot potatoe.


I thank Job Arnold and Eliot Albert for their comments.


  2. Peter Cohen (2006), Looking at the UN, smelling a rat. Amsterdam: CEDRO.
  3. Unintended Consequences: Illegal Drugs and Drug Policies in Nine Countries (Studies on the Impact of the Illegal Drug Trade, Vol. 4). Boulder 1995. UNRISD.
  4. In Vienna this year he reacted likewise to serious and honest questioning from Fredrick Polak of the Dutch Foundation for Drug Policy.
  5. Reinarman, Craig, Peter D.A. Cohen, and Hendrien L. Kaal (2004), The Limited Relevance of Drug Policy: Cannabis in Amsterdam and in San Francisco. American Journal of Public Health, 2004;94:836–842.