Critics at Vienna Conference Assail U.N. Approach

Think tanks, nongovernmental organizations and activists yesterday urged the United Nations to change its antidrug programs, pointing to a lack of progress in recent years against drug use and trafficking.

"After years of continuous setbacks, and with billions of dollars spent on destroying crops and putting people in jail, it is now time to look at more promising alternatives," the European Drug Policy Fund said in a statement distributed in Vienna as delegates from 116 countries gathered for talks about the U.N. anti-drug campaign that started in 1998.

Modeled on the U.S. anti-drug effort, the U.N. plan calls for increased interdiction efforts and a focus on law enforcement to stamp out the global drug trade by 2008. Critics say the approach is failing by all current measures, however, and call for an overhaul of U.N. drug policy.

The Open Society Institute, a foundation backed by financier George Soros, said U.N. drug control treaties that encourage tough law enforcement undercut health care efforts in poor countries and worsen the HIV/AIDS problem.

"In countries that are experiencing a rapid increase of drug use, the reflex reaction is to become tougher on drugs," said OSI drug abuse expert Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch. "Locking up users in prisons is not a solution. It only serves to drive users underground, making them less likely to seek out what few services do exist for them," Malinowska-Sempruch added (William Kole, Associated Press, April 15).

Last week, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said in a report to the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs that worldwide efforts against illicit drugs have shown "signs of progress" in demand reduction, supply reduction, international cooperation and overall drug control policy (UN Wire, April 9).

Transnational Institute, an independent think tank based in Amsterdam, reviewed the report and said last week that "encouraging progress cannot be substantiated on the basis of available evidence. Levels of cultivation of coca and opium poppy as well as the supply of cocaine and heroine have shown fluctuations but the trend seems to be relatively stable. No indications point at any substantial decline. The situation regarding the supply of cannabis and synthetic drugs has even deteriorated."

The institute suggested the commission "start to acknowledge that international drug policy should shift its focus to reducing the harm of drugs for users and society as a whole" (Transnational Institute release, April 8).

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