Europe's Cocaine Problem is a Curse

... and not only for Europe

Conference on Cocaine, Madrid, 15 November 2007

 

 

Mr. Minister, Madame Garcia

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

My compliments to the Spanish Government for organizing this event, and for putting squarely the issue of cocaine - its health, social and security consequences - on the agenda of European drug policy leaders. And thanks for doing this without the smoke-screen of the usual two reservations that:

  • coke does not kill (while heroin does),
  • coke is socially acceptable (because it is consumed by white collar people).

While those of us in this room know that these myths are not true, the whole drug scene in Europe is actually biased in favour of cocaine, making it the drug of choice as depressants are progressively abandoned: heroin is consumed by people on the margins of society, loitering in parks, near underground stations, or congregating around grubby treatment centres.

Cocaine has a different image. It has stylish names: the fair lady, the candid queen, the seductive sugar. It is white not dark; sniffed not injected; consumed in trendy discos not in cities' gutters; it is the mental fuel of society's winners, not the dope of losers. Even the exchange rate is helping, as the strong Euro is keeping the dollar price of the Andean drug low.

I know I am preaching to the converted. So instead, let me use this opportunity to address those outside this room - Europe's coke junkies.

Europe's addiction to coke is not harmless

We all know that a growing number of Europeans use cocaine. In Spain, more than 3 per cent of the population between the ages of 15 and 64 takes cocaine at least once a year. Fortunately there is some sign of improvement. In 2004, the number of young Spaniards, between the ages of 14 and 18, who used cocaine once a month was a shocking 7.2 per cent - it was down to 4.1 per cent last year.

But the trend elsewhere in Europe is going in the wrong direction. The proportion of people in the UK taking cocaine has doubled in the last ten years, from 1.3 per cent in 1998 to 2.6 per cent this year. Rates are also high in Italy. Throughout Europe, the problem is most acute in major cities, and among young males.

This growing coke addiction in Europe has three tragic consequences.

First, cocaine addiction is harmful to the addict. Coke may be portrayed as a party drug - but it is a highly addictive substance (the reason why it is controlled). Its use increases the risk of heart disease, harms the respiratory organs, destroys internal cavities (the nose), and makes users vulnerable to psychiatric disorders and brain damage. All this is well known and documented, so I will leave other speakers at this conference to elaborate.

Second , even if coke junkies don't care for the own health, they should certainly take responsibility for the damage done to others. For example coked up drivers who cause late night weekend death and destruction. There were over 400 cocaine-related road deaths in the EU last year. But also look farther a-field. They destroy nature in coca growing countries, as pristine forests are replaced by coca plantations. They endanger lives by financing terrorism - as occurred in the deadly Madrid bombings where drugs (hashish) were swapped for explosives. They condemn Colombia to a fate of FARC insurgency, urban violence and environmental degradation. Yet again, these points are well known, so I move on.

Third , wealthy Europeans looking for coke stimulation are destroying entire nations. This is not an example of "chaos theory" - the argument that the flap of a butterfly's wings in North America may cause a volcanic explosion in South East Asia. No, I am talking about something more concrete - a real and present danger. A sniff here and a sniff there in Europe are causing another disaster in Africa, to add to its poverty, its mass unemployment and its pandemics.

Africa Under Attack

What does cocaine have to do with Africa?

Traditional cocaine trafficking routes from the Andean countries to North America are heavily patrolled. Trafficking into Europe has also become very difficult, as our airspace and our coastline are becoming harder to penetrate. Seizure rates are as high as half of production (estimated by UNODC at 940 t/y). We used to seize batches of 100-200 kg of coke: the latest seizure in Mexico was a staggering 23 tons!

Yet as demand for cocaine in Europe keeps growing, traffickers have found an alternative route - through West Africa. Why? First its location: you can travel in a straight line acr oss the Atlantic from, say, Venezuela to Guinea Bissau. This amounts to 3 nights on a fast boat, loaded with 1-2 tons of drugs - refueled a couple of times by fake fishing vessels.

Second: vulnerability. Governments of the region are poor, weak and vulnerable - they cannot patrol their waters, cannot control their territory, cannot administer justice, and are plagued by corruption. They offer little resistance, indeed in so many cases some senior officials collude with the traffickers. As a result, the vulnerability of these countries to drugs, crime, corruption and poverty is deepening even further to the point that they risk complete collapse.

The international community cannot remain idle -- and I have pleaded in favor of African countries in my recent statement at the General Assembly. The situation on the ground in countries like Guinea Bissau is so bad that police cars do not have gas to chase suspects, no equipment to run investigations, no paper or pencil to note witness statements, no radios to call for back-up, no prisons to lock up convicted criminals, nothing.

As a result, Africa is under attack and cannot defend itself. Cocaine is being shipped in from South America to the countries of West Africa by boat, often by plane, then broken up into smaller consignments and sent up the coast to Morocco and then towards Europe.

The international community is reacting, but not as forcefully as needed. More than 4 tons of cocaine were seized in West Africa this year, a 35 per cent increase over the entire haul for 2006. The Spanish and British navies seized 9 tons of cocaine off the coast of West Africa last year. But this is probably only the tip of a cocaine iceberg. T he drugs trade in Guinea Bissau may be as high as the country's national income. By comparison, in Afghanistan - which is often cited as the worst case - opium is equivalent to about half (53%) of the country's GDP. So Africa faces a crisis of epic proportions, by and large fuelled by Europe's cocaine users.

"Eat it! Lick it! Snort it! F*** it!"

My Office is helping West Africa, and especially Guinea-Bissau improve their justice system and law enforcement capacity, as we have helped Cape Verde in the past. The issue is also on the agenda of the Security Council since the implications for the stability of the whole region are serious.

But even if we can reduce the threat to Guinea-Bissau, the problem will arise somewhere else in West Africa tomorrow until Europeans curb their appetite for cocaine. Let me remind you that so far Africa never had a drug problem - whether we talk about production (leaving aside the cannabis cultivation in Morocco, now in strong decline), or consumption. The recent upsurge of coke trafficking in West Africa is bound to cause addiction and related health and social problems: another European curse on a continent already so dramatically damaged by centuries of colonialism, exploitation, slavery and racism.

At times I am perplexed and frustrated.  Europeans now understand that they should not buy blood diamonds, or clothes made by slaves working in sweatshops. Extractive industries from around the world publish what they pay to local exporters as a way of preventing corruption. Major initiatives are in place to curb illicit trade in ivory, endangered species - even precious wood from illegal logging. The corporate world, reflecting public opinion, is showing a greater sense of social responsibility.

And yet with cocaine, the opposite occurs. Nobody makes movies about blood coke. Worse than that: models and socialites who wouldn't dare to wear a tiger fur coat, show no qualms about flaunting their cocaine use in public.

Look at Kate Moss who still receives lucrative contracts after she was photographed sniffing. Rock stars, like Amy Winehouse, become popular by singing I ain't going to rehab - even though she badly needed, and eventually sought, treatment. Gangster rappers and a popular genre of Latino music called Narco Corrido glamourize drug dealers as if they were modern day Robin Hoods. And while Britney Spears shouts Eat it! Lick it! Snort it! F*** it, paparazzi fill pages of fashion magazines, and TV crews film for the evening news. All these celebrity role models -- turned into junkies -- have in fact spent a lot of time in rehab lately, and their lives are a mess. Yet the entertainment industry laps it up, puts a gloss on it, and sells it to a voyeuristic public that is curious to watch the latest self-destruction of an actor, sports star or musician.

Other stars, like Eric Clapton or Maradona, who admit to, rather than brag about, their addiction and seek treatment receive public sympathy, but their return to a life without drugs receives little media attention.

Where is the problem? With the stars turned junkies, or with the media turned reckless, or both? I let you judge: certainly we all see that, while there is public interest in celebrity drug scandals, there is indifference to the fact that their words and deeds carry power, particularly to impressionable young people. Even when they are high on drugs and their personal and professional lives are in turmoil, these role models reach an audience millions of times bigger than any drug czar, and have an impact far beyond the reach of UN drugs conventions, or esoteric academic publications. One song, one picture, one quote that makes cocaine look cool can undo millions of dollars worth of anti-drug education and prevention.

Whether they like it or not, these public icons therefore carry a heavy social responsibility. They should spare a thought for people less fortunate who suffer from addiction, and they should think about the damaging consequences of their irresponsible words and deeds. I welcome people like Naomi Campbell, Donatella Versace, Robbie Williams, and others to come forward and speak out about the dangers of cocaine use, to make it a public enemy rather than socially acceptable.

Treating an Illness

There is another sad irony. When celebrities finally seek treatment, they can afford to go to fancy clinics. Yet around the world, millions of people trying to escape from cocaine are marginalized, punished, or lack access to treatment.

This must change. Drug addiction is a disease and must be prevented and treated like any other illness, like tuberculosis or HIV. Drug control is not a moral issue. It is not a political or an ideological issue - there should be no political left or right. It is a health issue.

We now know that that individual/genetic factors and environmental/social factors contribute to the risk of drug use and dependence. The challenge - for society as a whole - is to lower these risks.

That means working with children, starting from parents and teachers, to ensure that they get the love, encouragement and support that they need to develop self-esteem. There should be greater support for family-based programmes because prevention begins at home.

Schools can help by teaching life-skills and discussing with young people the effects of drug use.

There should be opportunities for young people to engage in healthy and constructive activities, like sports and culture, to enhance their well-being and prevent social isolation that can lead to drugs and crime.

Where medical or psychiatric intervention is needed, it should be detected early. Treatment should be properly sequenced and comprehensive. Crucially, it should be integrated into mainstream health and social services.

Strengthening Europe's Defences Against Cocaine

At the moment Europe stands almost naked in the face of the cocaine threat.

I spoke about the role of media.

Of course law enforcement needs to be strengthened, in countries of origin and transit - for example by providing assistance to Africa, or countries caught in the cross-fire in Central America and the Caribbean. But Europe's major focus should be on reducing demand.

Currently, drug prevention and control are geared towards heroin. Treatment centres must adapt to the growing cocaine problem - for example, catering to a clientele that is different than heroin.

Unlike heroin (think of methadone or naltraxone), there are no pharmacological tools for treating cocaine use. Therefore a stronger focus on psycho-social treatment is needed.

Since cocaine use is concentrated in affluent cities, municipalities and the private sector need to get more involved in strengthening prevention and treatment.

More evidence is needed about the effects of cocaine, and how to treat addiction. That is why UNODC is teaming up with the World Health Organization to improve evidence-based intervention around the world - for all types of drugs. Our common aim is to reduce drug use and dependence, including the related, health, social and economic consequences.

Such an approach could reduce the damage that addicts pose to themselves and others, and prevent the emergence of more narco-states.

No one should evade their responsibility for preventing the evil of drug addiction. If they do, let the tragedy of addiction and the destruction of the drugs trade be on their conscience.

I thank you for your attention.