The United States and its allies have been prosecuting the war on drugs for almost a century. They have never looked like they’re winning but they have carried on regardless. In the past year, however, the supporters of drug prohibition have suffered some important tactical defeats. The bipartisan consensus in Washington, although still powerful, is beginning to slip. But there is a strategic issue now facing supporters of prohibition that presents them with their toughest challenge yet, and Canada will be a key battleground. This will unfold in the next decade and may bring an end to the war on drugs, which has consistently failed to achieve its stated aims despite devouring hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars.
At the heart of this problem lie synthetic drugs—pills that are changing the rules, pushing out the old organic masters, cocaine and heroin, and turning the geopolitics of narcotics upside down. It is something that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is beginning to fret about.
For years, UNODC and its boss, Antonio Maria Costa, have been among the most vocal supporters of the war on drugs. UNODC has been the United States’ spearhead for its global campaign (it is the only UN agency for which Washington coughs up its contribution on time every year without moaning about it). And appointments like Costa’s are carefully vetted by the Americans. He and his colleagues have long demanded ever-more punitive responses against drug users and traffickers with a rhetoric that stands in sharp contrast to the usual strains of Kumbaya coming out of most UN agencies. I was shocked when Sandro Calvani, Costa’s representative in Bogota and a biologist by background, told me, “If somebody should tell me that they have found a new Agent Orange gas that kills all coca but damages the environment very heavily, I would consider it.”