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"The drug problem as we know it of late is a consequence of commercial exploitation"

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Antonio Maria Costa: "We have opened the windows of the world economy and flies have gotten in. My job is to catch the flies." Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
Antonio Maria Costa: "We have opened the windows of the world economy and flies have gotten in. My job is to catch the flies." Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Marcus Dam

Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, claims his office has been able to contain the problem of narcotics use. In an interview during a brief visit to Kolkata recently, he said more could be achieved only with societal participation. Excerpts:

What spurs the demand for narcotics?You start with the right question, that on demand. There is a notion of `war on drugs,' which means focussing on the traffickers. But this is not a part of my vocabulary. We feel it is crucial to focus on farmers whether Afghan, Colombian, or those elsewhere engaged in cultivation but also, very much, to focus on demand. I don't think enough is being done on demand.

There are many reasons for this; it is fundamentally difficult, in a sense, more than law-enforcement operations against traffickers whom we can attack with our intelligence systems and the rest. That of demand is an issue of society at large. It is bigger than one to be tackled just by the anti-narcotics people. It involves society, family, places of faith, and even of sports. We have just launched a 2.5 million dollar programme of "sports against drugs."

You call your office the conscience of the world in dealing with the problem. But are you doing enough?On the demand side, I'm sorry to say the answer is no, and, indeed, because it is so complex. The incubation of results takes such a long time and governments prefer to focus on facts and delivery.

Can drug abuse be perceived as an offshoot of a particular model of development? What are the social and economic origins of the demand for drugs?It would be too simplistic to say that the problem sprouts from any particular development model. It is clear that when my office started 25 years ago [I was not associated with it then] the motto was wrong. It was that a bunch of rich countries, which had an addiction problem, felt that they could solve it by putting at the disposal of the United Nations a certain amount of money to reduce the supply of narcotics coming from basically the poor, southern countries. Perhaps statistically that was the situation then. But today that motto has broken down totally. You have production in the rich countries and you have consumption in many developing countries though not to the extent of that in the rich countries.

The drug problem as we know it of late is a consequence of commercial exploitation, of commercial markets.

Are you talking of market forces determined by the theory of supply and demand?To say it [the problem] is [the outcome of] a capitalist model would be simplistic. In the case of heroin it has been a model associated with industrial society.

Now that Europe has entered a post-industrial period the use of heroin is declining and has moved further to the east [to countries] like Ukraine, Russia and Central Asia. In societies like Europe, the United States [which had become post-industrial even earlier], consumers now look for psycho-active substances as they are rich and wish to enjoy life as much as possible. But even these psycho-active substances have moved into south-east Asian countries like Thailand and even to India. But here it is not always for the enjoyment of life but to be able to work longer hours eighteen hours rather than just seven or eight.

Can one discern any link between the drug movement you talk of and forces of globalisation and free trade?To a very large extent many of the issues we deal with drugs, crime, trafficking in humans, money laundering all of this unseemly behaviour is accompanying the process of globalisation and, to some extent, benefiting from the fact that markets have become so open as has trade and communication with time and space abolished.

But the exercise is not to go back to forms of control which would impede trade; controls to limit drug flows in a way could turn out to be so draconian that they would limit normal trade. The idea, instead, is to limit the damage. When you open the window the flies get in. That is what has happened. We have opened the windows of the world economy and flies have gotten in. My job is to catch the flies.

What is the biggest challenge your office today faces today?There is that which deals with problems of drugs, crime and terrorism. There is an attitude among many member states that these are issues which will be dealt with by them in one way or another all three of them. I believe the problems are too large, too pervasive and there is [a] need to welcome greater societal involvement. The biggest obstacle is of convincing society at large that we cannot call law-enforcement agencies to reduce drugs and crime but we have to start by reducing the demand for narcotics, drugs and sexual services being provided by victims of new forms of slavery.

What about the ticklish issue of freedom of choice to have drugs?I believe we should not sacrifice human rights, freedom of democracy, in order to control drugs. We can preserve all that while tackling the issues at hand.

I will be sending out a message on June 26 the International Day in Favour of the Prevention against Drugs and this is also breaking news: we have succeeded worldwide in containing the drug problem, whether in supply or demand. Even though in some countries there has been an increase both in supply or demand, worldwide there has been stability. Hopefully the trend will now move downwards towards zero.


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