June 21, 2009 – In 1991, an editorial in the British Journal of Addiction condemned the inordinate amount of resources devoted to drug law enforcement, and compared the war on drugs to the witch hunts of the past.who

It’s an apt comparison, since drug warriors around the world are influenced more by myths, stereotypes and propaganda than by solid evidence. And when confronted by evidence that conflicts with the myths, stereotypes and propaganda of the drug war, the warriors seek to bury it rather than address it head on.

The 1995 Cocaine Project, a joint effort of the World Health Organization and the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, is a case in point.

You might never have heard of the Cocaine Project, and you might wonder why we’re discussing a report that’s 14 years old. The answer is simple: The WHO has never published the report, and even denied its existence, at least until last week when it was leaked to a Netherlands-based think-tank, The Transnational Institute.

This is unfortunate, given that the report sought the advice of experts from around the world, assessed cocaine use from Australia to Zimbabwe, and is the largest global study on cocaine ever conducted.

But a brief look at some of the study’s conclusions and recommendations reveals why it has been buried for the past 14 years.

For example, the report condemns the “over-reliance on law enforcement measures,” and recommends that “education, treatment and rehabilitation” programs be increased to re-balance our approach to problematic drug use.

Perhaps because the report was buried, this over-reliance on enforcement continues today, and many experts are saying the same thing the WHO said 14 years ago. But such recommendations don’t sit well with many drug warriors, who remain convinced of the seminal importance of law enforcement in decreasing drug use.

Reasonable people can disagree on how best to deal with drug abuse. But the facts are a different thing entirely, and what bothered the drug warriors the most wasn’t the report’s recommendations, but its statements of fact — that is, its findings about the effects of cocaine use.

The report notes, for instance, that health problems from “the use of legal substances, particularly alcohol and tobacco, are greater than health problems from cocaine use.”

If that weren’t enough, it states that “few experts describe cocaine as invariably harmful to health,” and that problems “are mainly limited to high-dosage users.” Indeed, “occasional cocaine use does not typically lead to severe or even minor physical or social problems . . . a minority of people start using cocaine or related products, use casually for a short or long period, and suffer little or no negative consequences, even after years of use.”

To top it off, the report states that the “use of coca leaves . . . has positive therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations” — a reference to South American aboriginals who have used coca leaves for thousands of years.

Now, however politically incorrect these conclusions are, they are either factually correct or incorrect. If they’re incorrect, they ought to be countered vigorously; if correct, they ought to inform our drug policy.

Instead, the WHO buried the report, largely as a result of pressure from the United States.

It’s interesting to note that in 2008, the WHO reported that the U.S. has the highest rate of cocaine use in the world. Interesting, but not surprising, for no drug control approach can be “proven” if it is the result of intentionally ignoring the evidence.

In fact, the U.S. provides a perfect example of the folly of attending to the evidence one likes, and ignoring the rest.

Now that the WHO report has been published by the Transnational Institute, it’s time for all countries to take a long, hard look at their drug policy, and at the evidence, and to ensure that the former is informed by the latter.