us too influential on foreign drug policy

Is the US Too Influential in UN Drug Policy?



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Chapter 1, Article 1 of the United Nations charter states that its purposes are to: Maintain international peace and security; develop friendly relations among nations; take appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace; achieve international cooperation in solving problems of economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian character; respecting human rights; and to become a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends. 


First, a comparison of the Economic and Social Counsel (ECOSOC) and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) arms of the UN drug policy provides strong evidence that the US may very well be too influential in UN drug policy.  And because of that, as you may suspect, I am going to call bullshit on this multilateral, do it for the greater good of the planet, stated purpose of the UN.

Let’s talk about blow.

Cocaine use in member states strongly correlates with  the major funders of the UNODC.  According to figures from the United Nations, about 14 million people globally use cocaine with regularity. More than 6 million of these users are in North America; and the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy have the highest use of cocaine per capita in Europe respectively. However, cocaine use in South America where coca plants are cultivated for manufacturing of cocaine is far less and relatively insignificant. (3) Interestingly enough,  US, the United Kingdom and Italy have been the largest contributors to UNODC respectively.

And although the UNODC was established in 1997 to “assist member states in their struggle against illicit drugs, crime, and terrorism” and chartered to be a multilateral body that represents all of its member states (5), it unfortunately has adopted US national drug policy on an international level. This is no shocker, since the majority of funding of the UNODC is from the US, which also reduces criticism of US drug policies in other UN member countries, and US influence is further underscored by its status as a permanent member of the UN.


UNODC logoFunding of the UNODC by the US is a fundamental tenet of US influence in UNODC policy.  The UNODC is 90% funded by member states voluntarily, and the United States has a trend of being the UNODC’s biggest donor for almost 40 years.  The fact that UNODC derives a large amount of its funding from the United States creates an environment where the UNODC’s ability to contradict the policies of the funding members is reduced due to fears that its major donors will withhold or decrease donations.  Really, this makes perfect sense.

Because the United States is the largest donor, it also controls the projects that UNODC carries out.  To further illustrate the influence of the US role in the UNODC policies, the UNODC gives a full presentation to their “major donors” semi-annually in the “Major Donor’s Meeting” to show the success of its projects,  including major project BOL/C23 (a project to eradicate coca plants in Bolivia) that has since “quadrupled with a subsequent expansion of activities and increase in the number of beneficiaries,” according the UNODC. The 3 main contributors of Project BOL/C23 are the United States, The United Kingdom, and Italy.

Conversely, there’s the Economic and Social Counsel (ECOSOC),  a major organ of the United Nations that is designed to facilitate “international cooperation on standards-making and problem-solving in economic and social issues.”  ECOSOC does not derive the majority of its budget voluntarily, and ECOSOC will not cease to exist if the United States ever left the United Nations. This is noteworthy because the discrepancies between ECOSOC and UNODC also demonstrate how influential voluntary funding may be on the outcome of a “Special Project” or “Case Study”.  For example, while UNODC specifically states that there are “signs” that the cultivation of alternative licit crops will “liberate” a poverty-stricken country, ECOSOC reports that “alternative development”, notably UNODC programs, have proven unsuccessful.  In contrast to UNODC reporting,  ECOSOC reports that the coca eradication programs like the aerial fumigations in Columbia have been carried out often through violent means and have had a tragic impact on the health of thousands of people as well as on the environment of the concerned regions.

These two UN organizations have diametrically opposed reportings.

At the 48th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) the UNODC “Alternative Development: a Global Thematic Evaluation” report that states that eradication of illicit crops in tandem with the development of alternative crops would “improve livelihoods” of the coca farmers. UNODC also reported that alternative development had promoted stability in the agricultural industry, and decreased the cultivation of illicit crops.  According to UNODC, alternative development is:

“A process to prevent and eliminate the illicit cultivation of plants containing narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances through specifically designed rural development measures in the context of sustained national economic growth and sustainable development efforts in countries taking action against drugs, recognizing the particular socio-cultural characteristics of the target communities and groups, within the framework of a comprehensive and permanent solution to the problem of illicit drugs.”

It was also concluded in the “Alternative Development: a Global Thematic Evaluation” report that:

“Alternative development has enjoyed numerous development successes, if at times they have seemed small in relation to the enormity of the challenge. Successes have allowed and consolidated the reduction of illicit crops and contained their spread and suggest what greater commitment could achieve.”

Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UNODC stated in the “Bolivia Coca Survey for 2006” that the Chapare region of Bolivia has seen an increase in the cultivation of coca plants since 2005.  Costa, notably an Italian, also states that the “good news from this same region is that the amount of land devoted to the cultivation of alternative crops— such as bananas, pineapple and palm heart— now exceeds the area used to grow coca.  There are signs of hope that licit crops can help liberate vulnerable communities from poverty.

In contrast the Transnational Radical Party (TRP), a non-governmental organization that consults with ECOSOC, presented the Secretary-General a written statement during the Commission on Human rights that brought up the social and economic issues with the UNODC’s proposed solution of producing alternative crops. Though TRP agrees that “in theory the idea of promoting licit crops as an alternative means for the development of those societies where the plants used for the production of narcotics are grown is a good one, in practice the substitution has never proven to be self-sufficient in the medium or long term.”


supply and demandThe reason why “alternative development” cannot maintain self-sufficiency is because when the country begins to substitute illicit crops for licit crops, the market exhibits a surplus of licit crops, and a shortage in illicit crops.  Given the inverse relationship laws of supply and demand, the surplus of licit crops would cause a decrease in the profitability margin of that particular crop, and the shortage would cause a higher demand, and thus higher profitability margin for the illicit crop, which would negate UNODC arguments in favor of alternative development for the economic benefit of an impoverished country in the first place.

Seriously, this is elementary Econ.

As destructive to the economy as “Alternative Development” is within the Andean region, there are also other major economic and social detriments to the people of the region ignored by the UNODC. The written statement submitted by the Latinamerican human rights association (ALDHU) focuses on the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon that has been “caused not by war but by poverty and environmental destruction.”

One particular area in Ecuador, known as the Sucumbios, has been plagued with environmental contamination by United States petroleum companies, and by eradication methods implemented to rid the region of the coca plant.  By 2002, more than 50% of the Sucumbios region was sprayed with the chemical RoundUp Ultra (20), while the many from indigenous population suffered severe negative health effects.  To add insult to injury, this region that already has the highest poverty rates in Ecuador, (81.7% impoverished, 40.2% abject poverty).

Anyone else find it curious that they use RoundUp, which kills insects and not an herbicide, which kills the plant?

Anyway, The fumigations in the Sucumbios negatively affected the health of 100% of the indigenous people living within 5km of the spraying.  Even after 3 months the people of the Sucumbios still exhibited symptoms of nausea and headaches. The chemicals in the RoundUP contaminated the water supply of this region where only 5.5% of its population had access.

With the implementation of aerial fumigations using RoundUp, “cases of acute and chronic toxicity and a relationship with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) have begun to appear.” 107 cases studied in Uruguay showed that the chemical glyphosate (main chemical in Roundup) is absorbed through mucous membranes and skin causing intoxication, which resulted in neuromuscular deficiencies and even death for some affected. Other studies conducted in the area showed that it depletes amphibian populations in the contaminated regions. The Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) (Not *that* ISIS)  stated that “There is now a wealth of evidence that glyphosate requires worldwide health warnings and new regulatory review. Meanwhile, its use should be reduced to a minimum as a matter of prudent precaution,” since it’s been linked to “the death of placental cells, miscarriage and cancer.”

The ALDHU and Ecological Action (Accíon Ecológica) found that not only had the indigenous people living in the Sucumbios suffered from health concerns along with the loss of the majority of their crops, but they were also were forced to relocate south to get away from their contaminated environment. However, neither the United Nations nor other humanitarian aid organizations recognize internal displacement; refugee status is given only to those forced outside of their country, and international organizations have not yet helped. The people of the Sucumbios have made an effort to appeal to their government as well as the United States to stop the aerial fumigations, and show that the fumigations have been a detriment to the health of the indigenous people, but they have yet to succeed.

The reason why the indigenous people have yet to succeed is probably rooted in the political decision to allow fumigations in the first place. Before the aerial fumigations, Bolivia and 22 other countries refused to use herbicides for mass destruction of coca plants. In 1989, the United States House or Representatives would agree to a proposal “that would grant [illicit crop] producing countries that are successful in the aerial eradication of their illicit crops the possibility of debt forgiveness from the U.S. government.” Shortly thereafter, the governments of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador would soon agree to the proposal, and allow aerial fumigations. So essentially, their own government screwed them over, too.


unodc coca plantWhat astounds me is that UNODC actually recognizes that the indigenous people living in the altiplano (high plane) of the Andes region cultivate coca plants for social, nutritional, and economical use. It is also documented by the UNODC that the indigenous people of the altiplano “are living within an aboriginal culture in which coca use has always played an important role socially, where the coca plant is used as food, sacrament, religious, and medicinal purposes since pre-Columbian times. Modern Bolivian cultures like the Aymara whose ceremonies like “wakes, weddings, divinations, sacrifices and initiation,” all incorporate the use of the coca plant, and still administer the coca plant as an “herbal remedy” to alleviate symptoms such as headaches, nausea, fatigue, and altitude sickness.

The UNODC even recognizes that the coca plant has nutritive value. It provides a source of calcium for the natives, and the natives also describe that chewing the plant “relieves hunger, reduces fatigue, and promotes warmth.” After further evaluation, UNODC conceded that the plant does in fact have “high nutritional value,” and further review shows that chewing coca leaves results in “a higher core temperature and a reduced sense of fatigue.” Therefore, the UNODC duly notes that the coca plant has “significant adaptive value in an environment such as the Andean plateau where cold, hard work and a marginal diet are common.” The UNODC also noted that the “equation of coca use with cocaine addiction is also considered and a simple equivalence is rejected.”


coca plant unodcThe UNODC also documents that the coca plant is a significant bartering tool for the indigenous people of the Andean altiplano. Selling coca leaves to the people of lower altitudes increases the profit margin for the farmers, as the coca increases in value where more demand exists, creating an incentive for the campesinos.  In fact, UNODC reports that “coca leaves may also function as a substitute currency with stores exchanging goods for coca at fixed rates, and wages being paid in coca for various tasks.” The coca production in the Andes is an integral part of the economies in impoverished South American countries.

And although the UNODC is aware of the uses of the coca plant for the indigenous people of the Andean regions, and despite the evidence given by ECOSOC and their NGO affiliates, the United Nations still adheres to the drug enforcement policies and ideologies of the United States.  Somehow, UNODC still holds more weight than ECOSOC. In fact,  the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), or “the central policy-making body within the United Nations system dealing with drug-related matters,” is charged with analyzing “the world drug situation and developing proposals to strengthen the international drug control system to combat the world drug problem.” Unfortunately, The CND has “refused time and again to foster a debate along the lines of economic, social and cultural rights concerning those regions where raw materials are grown” according to TRP.

Also, TRP claims that the CND has not taken the evidence against their implemented policies into “due consideration.” Kathryn Stevenson, the Vice Chair of the ECOSOC, notes that:

“Many large and politically powerful nations have chosen to take the zero tolerance to drugs approach, pouring huge amounts of resources to curb the supply and usage of illegal substances. Yet these reduction efforts have only been followed by an escalation of drug supply and abuse.”

Coca cultivation has decreased in Colombia, creating the economic incentive for farmers in the neighboring countries of Bolivia and Peru to produce more. Studies have shown that on a global scale, cocaine production has not decreased,  and the global price for cocaine has not increased.  So essentially the war on drugs in South America was foolish. However, promoting production of coca plants for those previously harmed by fumigation and socio-economic destabilization has the potential to further develop these areas economically and would reduce the black market for the plant, consequently reducing criminal networks within the country as well.

The current policies of the United Nations have not been effective, nor has there been any evidence in support that the “zero tolerance” approach to the world drug problem has had any positive long-term effects curbing drug use or production. Because it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that these policies have not succeeded in curbing drug use, some states have opted for a different approach to prohibition.  Australia, Canada, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are now taking the “harm reduction” stance, that entails accepting “that drug taking cannot be prevented, and instead concentrate on reducing its consequences for health [HIV/AIDS specifically] and crime.”

The United States vehemently opposes this approach and is still the largest voluntary donor to the UNODC.



Is the United States Too Influential in UN Drug Policy by Karen Pendergrass



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