UN Drug Control Board Laments Reform, Urges Member Nations to Toe the Drug War Line 2/26/99

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Efforts in some countries to lessen the impact of punitive drug policies came under fire in the annual report from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) released at the UN this week. The report, an overview of UN member states' attempts to implement UN drug control conventions, warns against harm reduction initiatives that threaten to undermine the prohibitionist policies outlined in the conventions.

The report stresses the board's concern "over the possible proliferation of heroin experiments" such as the clinical trial soon to be underway in the Netherlands, which will test the feasibility of providing co-prescribed heroin and methadone to hard-core addicts. The board was more critical of Switzerland, which voted in 1997 to continue its own heroin maintenance program after a three year experiment and a national referendum. Referring back to its 1997 report, the board reiterated its earlier concerns about the Swiss government's positive evaluation of its own heroin program, which the INCB said led to "misinterpretations and hasty conclusions by some politicians and the media in several European countries."

Similarly, the report expresses the INCB's suspicion of harm reduction strategies such as safe-injection rooms, which some governments have explicitly or tacitly supported as a way to reduce the disease and public disorder associated with hard drug use. Ultimately, the INCB "urges those States to consider carefully all the implications of such 'shooting galleries,' including the legal implications, the congregation of addicts, the facilitation of illicit trafficking, the message that the existence of such places may send to the general public and the impact on the general perception of drug abuse." The report does not elaborate on what it believes such a message to be.

Although other sections of the report note the high incidence of AIDS and HIV among injection drug users in the United States, Canada, Ukraine, Estonia, and many other countries, it makes no mention of needle exchange.

The report is curiously silent on many countries' efforts to scale back prosecution of the drug war. In mentioning Belgium's decision to make prosecution for minor marijuana offenses the "lowest judicial priority," it comments only that, "It is unfortunate that the directive has been widely misinterpreted as a move towards the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis." Similar reforms on the way in Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and other countries are not discussed in the report.

The board was more strident in its dismay over the passage of medical marijuana initiatives in several US states. "The Board trusts that the United States Government will vigorously enforce its federal law... in states that, pursuant to referendums, have authorized the use of cannabis, contrary to the federal law prohibiting the medical and non-medical use of cannabis" reads one section. In another section, widely publicized in US news accounts, the board "renews its call for additional scientific research" on medical marijuana, insisting that "such decisions should have a sound medical and scientific basis and should not be made in accordance with referendums organized by interest groups."

But some of those interest groups say the INCB is merely stonewalling. DRCNet spoke with Dave Fratello, a spokesman for Americans for Medical Rights, the California-based group that has sponsored many of the US medical marijuana initiatives. "The UN is taking a position very much like the one the US government has taken, which is that we shouldn't do anything about medical marijuana until some unforeseen time many years down the road when all the science has come in," he said. "What we're seeing from around the country where people are willing to vote yes on medical marijuana initiatives, and our Attorney General here in California is trying to make Prop. 215 work, is that you don't have to wait for that science. The science has already been done in many regards. And the cases of individual patients that have been so well publicized to date demonstrate that there's no justification for keeping laws on the books that criminalize these patients. Especially when you've got a situation where it could go on for ten or fifteen years, who knows how long just for the research to be done -- and we're talking in many cases about terminally ill patients."

Ethan Nadelmann, director of the New York based drug policy research institute the Lindesmith Center, agreed. "Remember," he said, "just as we say that Washington, DC is the last place that we're going to see change in the United States, the UN is one of the last places we're going to see change internationally. The UN systems are among the most rigid and ossified -- not all of them, not UNAIDS or UNDP -- but the UN Drug Control Program and the INCB, these are organizations where there is no benefit for anyone in these organizations to advocate for reform."

Nadelmann questioned the scientific legitimacy of the board, and said the INCB itself tends to operate as a political, rather than a scientific body. "It's an organization which is always looking for the supposed legalizer behind any harm reduction innovation," he said. "In many respects it seems like a sort of creaky, old Politburo of international drug control."

Asked for his reaction to implications in the report questioning the legitimacy of the Swiss heroin experiment, Nadelmann scoffed. "The Swiss did their best to do a legitimate scientific study, and it was one that was inevitably constrained by political circumstances, one in which research designs were adopted to political constraints -- imposed not by reformers, but by those who were opposed to the experiment in the first place."

Still, Nadelmann said he was pleased to see that the INCB report was forced to acknowledge at least some of the international movements toward drug reform. "They sense the smell of reform in the air," he said, "whether it's in the United States with the passage of the ballot initiatives and referendums last November, or the current developments in Europe -- especially in Germany, but also in places like France and Belgium and Switzerland and other countries. So it's nice to see that the INCB is actually awakening to the fact that there are serious calls for change out there."

While it may be awakening to signs of change, the INCB shows no signs that it will give up its attachment to punitive drug prohibition any time soon. Despite numerous mentions throughout the report of purer, cheaper drugs more widely available than ever, despite its acknowledgment that even the United States, with some of the harshest policies in the world, has done little to ameliorate the condition of hard-core drug addiction, the report insists that "History has shown that national and international control of drugs has proved to be an efficient tool for reducing the development of drug dependence and is therefore the choice to be made."

Maybe next year.

(The INCB report is available online at http://www.incb.org. The Lindesmith Center web site can be found at http://www.lindesmith.org.)

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Issue #80, 2/26/99 Announcements | UN Drug Control Board Laments Reform, Urges Member Nations to Toe the Drug War Line | Iran Says Executing Drug Smugglers "Unsuitable Solution" #NAME? US Legislators Want to Try It Here | DEA Chief Constantine Rips US Drug War Efforts, Bemoans Mexican Situation | Jesse "The Governor" Ventura on the Drug War | Sen. McCain Seeks Radical Cutbacks in Methadone Maintenance | California Officials Comment on Medical Marijuana | South Carolina Mulls Making Sale of Urine a Felony Offense | American Farm Bureau Reverses Position on Hemp at Convention | Canada: Terminally Ill Man Will Continue to Smoke Marijuana Despite Conviction | Author of "Drug Crazy" Lecturing in Dallas, March 2nd | Editorial: Mr. Ventura Comes to Washington

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