UN Reaffirms Prohibitionist Path

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNCND) midterm meeting in Vienna to review the ten-year anti-drug strategy adopted in 1998 has come to an end, with the UN narcocrats reaffirming the prohibitionist path laid out in a series of UN treaties beginning in 1961. Taking their cue from the country & western song, "Who Are You Going to Believe -- Me or Your Lying Eyes?" the UN anti-drug agencies concluded that all is well and the world is firmly on the way to meeting the UN goal of substantially reducing all drug crops and eliminating drug use by 2008. Still, for the first time, the global prohibitionists encountered significant opposition, not only from drug reformers (or the "legalizer" crowd, as the UN puts it), but from within the governments of some of the countries it has criticized for undertaking even timid half-steps to reform the drug laws, and even within its own ranks.

Despite the presence of internal dissent, hard reform lobbying by European and international non-governmental organizations and street protests, the 145 national delegations in attendance ended the conference on April 18 by reaffirming their commitment to prohibitionist policies based on those of the United States and adopting resolutions designed to heighten anti-drug repressive measures. In their Joint Statement, the delegates also expressed concern over "threats posed by continuing links between illicit drug trafficking and terrorism and other... criminal activities, such as trafficking in human beings."

They also explicitly noted the challenge they face from reformers, with the UNCND expressing "grave concern about policies and activities in favor of the legalization of illicit narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances that were not in accordance with the international drug control treaties and that might jeopardize the international drug control regime."

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, sounded a similar theme in his address to delegates two days earlier. Noting the presence of dissenters both within and without the conference hall, Costa welcomed "their presence as we are always happy to help them understand that laissez faire in self-destruction is not a solution."

And so did the head of the US delegation, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky. "We must resist calls for lenient drug consumption policies," she told delegates. "We know that these policies fail to sustain our important efforts as represented by the international narcotics conventions."

The prohibitionists were emboldened by the delivery of a purported 1.3 million signatures supporting drug prohibition gathered and presented by Swedish arch-prohibitionists the Hasselas Nordic Network (http://www.hnnsweden.com). Who the purported signatories are remains a mystery, though, as the Hasselas web page promising to list them contains only the message that "the list of signatories will be updated monthly."

But while Costa and the delegates painted a rosy picture of success, even he had to admit that much "unfinished business" remains. Overall coca production is down, he said, while noting that it is on the increase in Bolivia and Peru. Opium production is down, he said, while noting that it is on the increase in Afghanistan. Cocaine consumption is decreasing in the United States and Western Europe, he said, while noting it is increasing in Russia and along trafficking routes. And cannabis consumption and production not only remains intractable, he complained, it is "by stealth infiltrating our minds and our society in terms of acceptance." Worse yet in Costa's view, it is increasingly viewed as a soft drug. And then there Costa's new "Public Enemy #1," synthetics such as MDMA (ecstasy) and methamphetamines. "The stuff is produced everywhere in the world, in hard-to-detect mom-and-pop shops, and also in mafia-run undertakings capable of producing millions of doses," he said.

But while Costa, the UNCND and prohibitionists worldwide pronounced themselves satisfied with intensifying current repressive policies, the clamor for change was louder than ever before. Even as the narcocrats and ministers met, drug war critics launched a public assault on prohibition.

"The war on drugs cannot be won because it is a war on human nature," Sir Keith Morris, former British Ambassador to Colombia, told an April 17 news conference called to highlight opposition to current policies and demand the revision or repeal of international drug treaties during a meeting in Vienna of UN anti- drugs agencies. "History shows that no society ever existed which was 'drug-free.'"

Joining Morris at the press event was Marco Cappato, an Italian member of the European Parliament, coordinator of Parliamentarians for Anti-Prohibitionist Action, and official of the International Anti-Prohibitionist League (IAL), an affiliate of the Transnational Radical Party. "In the five years since the UN launched its war on drugs, the numbers show the use of all the major drugs has increased... as well as drug-related deaths from overdose and HIV/AIDS," said Cappato. Prohibition only benefited terrorists and organized crime, Cappato said, adding that a European Parliament vote calling for more civilized drug policies in the EU lost by only one vote. Cappato's IAL released a Counter Report to the UN's World Drug Report, shedding light on the data behindg INCB's claimed successes.

Cappato and Morris were joined by a plethora of reform groups in the International Coalition of NGOs for Just and Effective Drug Policies (http://www.encod.org), as well as think tanks like George Soros' Open Society Institute, the European Drug Policy Fund, and the Holland-based Transnational Institute in launching attacks both on prohibitionism and on the UN's continuing commitment to its current prohibitionist path. "This strategy has failed," the European Drug Policy Fund said in a statement. "Far from making progress toward the goal of a 'drug-free world by 2008,' drug consumption is in effect on the rise in both industrial and developing countries, as are drug-related crime and other social ill-effects. 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 statement said.

"The outcomes of this 46th CND session and the midterm review are most disappointing," pronounced the Transnational Institute, accusing delegations of failing to engage in honest analysis of the results of current policy. "The result is a distorted picture of virtual progress in order to justify staying on the same course. The illusion is kept alive that reality will somehow fall into line with wishful thinking."

Britain's Transform Drug Policy Institute also expressed its disappointment. "This meeting has clearly been a missed opportunity," said Institute spokesman Steve Rolles. "What should be a gathering of experts to facilitate the development of effective responses to the global drug problem has instead become a futile restatement of counterproductive policies and unrealistic pledges. As the world drug problem continues to spiral out of control, we are forced to watch the ludicrous spectacle of the CND self-righteously proclaiming that everything is getting better," he said. "The UN drug control agencies and UN drug treaties are aligned to US 'war on drugs' ideology that has been complete disaster everywhere it has been tried. UN drug agencies are so extreme that they are now even condemning 'lenient' countries, including the UK, for developing health based harm reduction policies, despite compelling evidence that such interventions are highly effective. It is bizarre that the UK, hardly a cheerleader for the drug policy revolution, is being singled out for criticism on the basis of a minor legislative tweak to cannabis policing."

But the UN's "bizarre" attack on even marginal drug reforms may be a blessing in disguise for reformers. "The International Narcotics Control Board [part of the UN narcocracy] has discredited itself by condemning the democratic path some countries have taken," concluded the Transnational Institute. "The legitimacy of the Board itself is at stake. Instead of trying to accommodate the pragmatic and evidence-based policy developments, the INCB is taking a collision course with several countries. Policy differences have always existed, but now the divergence has led to cracks in the Vienna consensus."

The attack on British cannabis decrim did just, that according to an ENCOD report on the conference. The British delegation to the conference conducted a "robust defense" of British cannabis policy, with leader Bob Ainsworth laying out the scientific basis for reclassifying cannabis downward and objecting strongly to earlier "alarmist" comments by INCB president Phillip Emafo. Emafo would not reply, ENCOD reported, except to reiterate his objections.

Meanwhile, the INCB was raising German hackles for criticizing Germany's use of safe injection rooms. Marion Caspers-Merk, the German parliamentary secretary of state for drugs, not only strongly argued that Germany's interpretation of the UN conventions allowed for such practices, but also issued a press statement calling for a balanced, realistic and flexible international drug policy.

Such events have begun to cause dissent even within the ranks of the INCB, ENCOD reported. According to the NGO group, members of the INCB council expressed such dissent by attending meetings of the alternative summit organized by ENCOD and others, as well as refusing to publicly back anti-harm reduction statements made by Emafo. Dissent also surfaced in a document prepared by the Legal Affairs Section of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which criticized the conventions' lack of flexibility to allow for harm reduction measures such as safe injection rooms. [Ed: It may be only the INCB's interpretation of the conventions that lacks the flexibility to accommodate harm reduction policies; a number of countries and many experts have disputed INCB's contention that the treaties preclude them.]

The dissent also took to the streets, as several thousand anti-prohibitionist protesters marched across the Danube, releasing hundreds of balloons filled with cannabis, coca and poppy seeds, before settling into the alternative conference at Vienna University.

Ministers and delegates were unswayed this year, but if the dissenters failed to change global drug policy in Vienna, they have at least moved into the mainstream. With a host of European governments increasingly sympathetic to a revised drug policy, with pressure mounting for similar change in Latin America, and with at least some of the UN narcocracy started to pay attention to the rising clamor, Vienna 2003 may well mark the end of the uncontested reign of the global prohibitionists.

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