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Joep Oomen, Coordinator of the European NGO Coalition on Drugs and Development (ENCOD) believes that  the upcoming April 2003 summit provides an opportunity to show that drug prohibition is causing more harm than the consumption of prohibited drugs themselves. Lobbying for a revision of the UN Conventions he has organised a series of events, including a public hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels, on 4 March 2003. Anyone interested in these efforts is welcome to contact encod@glo.be or visit the campaign website at: www.vienna2003.org.
A drug-free world, let’s forget it

Joep Oomen

Every war has its motivation, its excuse. If authorities want to continue fighting against enemies, they need to keep justifying themselves. In a democracy, this means that they have to criminalize the people they fight against, to make sure that these people are not considered as "respectable" citizens. If authorities want to continue spending millions of tax money in operations that end up destroying people’s lives, they have to contradict any "respectable" arguments that may motivate these people’s behaviour. The war against drugs is no exception to this rule. Before waging a war against coca or opium growers in some of the least developed countries in the world, authorities need to describe them as accomplices of drug traffickers or terrorists. Before persecuting drug users and forcing them to sell their bodies and commit crimes in order to survive, authorities need to prove that people take drugs to poison instead of trying to cure themselves. In this way, a public image arises according to which illegal drugs are causing damage to society, and all the authorities are doing is to try and stop it from happening. This public image of the drugs issue is so strong, that many people, even those who fight for a world based on justice and respect, have difficulties seeing through it. It is as if speaking on drugs, mentioning the word drugs, already scares people off. Nobody doubts that drug use may (better: cause problems). However, when we are afraid to speak about (these problems), it is very unlikely that we will come nearer to a solution for (them).

From New York to Vienna

In June 1998, government representatives from all over the world met in New York in a UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, under the slogan ‘ A drug-free world, we can do it’. At the end of the meeting al UN Member States adopted a political declaration in which they committed themselves to eliminate or significantly reduce the supply and demand for illegal drugs before the year 2008.  Similar commitments had been made before, in 1961 and 1988, and all the best available evidence shows this approach is not having any impact whatsoever. Today, producers and consumers of illegal drugs operate in an environment that could best be described as a really ‘free market’, without hardly any rules or limitations. The products are easily available to anyone including children, although there exists no control whatsoever on the quality, price or ways of production and distribution. Prohibition of drugs hands a monopoly of these products or services to provide them to criminal groups who are greedy by nature and avoid accountability and responsibility. Meanwhile, many problems that are routinely blamed on drugs in the field of public health and community safety, are, as all local experts know,  directly related to the fact that they are prohibited. This information is well documented, but deliberately overlooked by policy-makers, mass media, and consequently, by the general public.
From 8 to 17 April 2003, government representatives from all over the world will meet in Vienna to review progress at the half way point of the 10 year strategy adopted in 1998 by the UNGASS in New York. The meeting will include a ministerial summit where decisions will be taken on the direction drug policy will take in the next 5 years. The meeting is a chance for the world to initiate an international debate on the alternatives to current drug policy. Europe has a specific role to play in Vienna. Due to its experiences of the last ten years, European authorities are in the best position to propose a fundamental revision of international drug legislation, based on three UN Treaties.

During the past decade, most European countries have started an process towards a modernisation of drug policy. In the circles of political, legal and health authorities that deal with the issue in Europe, it is now well understood that persecution of drug users is counterproductive. Like tightrope walkers, authorities are balancing on the tension between the law, which is still designed to obtain a reduction of drug demand, and its application, where this goal has been replaced by a reduction of drug related harm. Measures like needle exchange, the establishment of safe injection rooms and the decriminalisation of cannabis consumption have been successful in improving living conditions of users and reducing the spread of HIV and other bloodborne diseases throughout almost the entire European Union. The opposition against these measures in places where they are implemented tends to disappear after some time when most people acknowledge their effectiveness. At that point, nobody seems to care very much about the fact that these measures are strictly spoken in open contradiction with the UN Conventions, and come routinely under criticism by the UN’s watchdog, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

The limits of harm reduction

Harm reduction is above all a strategy to counter the most threatening and visible consequences of a problem, it does not deal with the roots of it. Much drug related harm remains that cannot be reduced by current policies as long as they are based on prohibition. Clean needles may  prevent people from contracting infectious diseases, but not from a life of crime and prostitution. Harm reduction is almost nonexistent in European prisons, apparently because authorities find it difficult to accept that illegal drugs enter prisons where people are sent to for violating drug laws. Neither does there exist any harm reduction in the policy towards drug producers in developing countries, where governments are encouraged to destroy the livelihoods of people who are trying to obtain the basic needs to survive. As a result, armed conflicts take place in many of the countries mentioned, causing deaths and massive human rights violations on a daily basis, and these armed conflicts contribute to the creation of alliances between drug traffickers, corrupt officials, armed and extremist groups. International drug prohibition and the way it is used by industrialised countries today is fuelling these conflicts.
Finally, harm reduction programmes can do very little against the accumulation of wealth and power by the organisations that deal in illegal drugs. According to UN estimations, every second, approx. 16.000 EUROs (check this please: there are 31.536.000 seconds in one year – Un estimates are drug industry makes 4 to 500 billion euros a year, that is 15.854 euros a second)  are earned through the sale of illegal drugs throughout the world. As production costs represent less than 1 % of this amount, the profits of criminal organisations are enormous. Thus, international drug prohibition is not only used to justify a global apparatus of repression, it is also a driver for international organised crime.(rewritten, check if you agree)

Regulation is the only option

In spite of all these limitations, the importance of harm reduction policies is undeniable. Not only because of the lives they have saved and improved, but also due to the fact that they have helped to change the basic logic of traditional drug policies: to stop prohibiting and start regulating. As the events in Switzerland have shown, public acceptance of the need to regulate drug markets is not the result of an ideological process; it is simply a consequence of a rational approach by authorities. This is what the world needs today.
Every single country in the world should be allowed to establish its own mechanisms to regulate the production and consumption of drugs, and form bilateral agreements with other countries concerning the supply of drugs they cannot produce themselves. Sustainable relationships should be fostered between drug producers and authorities, based on mutual respect that includes the recognition of the fact that collaboration serves mutual benefits. Particularly, those groups of people who are especially disadvantaged by economic or social marginalisation, such as small-scale farmers or settlers in developing countries, should be able to participate in the design of policies that concern them.

It is expected that this process will lead to the improvement of life conditions in producing areas, which again will make the population less vulnerable to incentives from the black market. Establishment of basic health care and education facilities, measures to avoid environmental damage and mechanisms to ensure food security, fair prices and market access for any products, also including legal outlets for plants like coca, cannabis and opium, will contribute to a rationalization of drug production.

Regulation of the market will also act to counter the intervention of unscrupulous middlemen with measures that protect the interests of producers and consumers. These can include quality control in places of consumption, accurate information on prices and quality to producers and consumers, and methods of controlled distribution. Countries, which decide to allow the distribution of drugs could do this either through the public provision or through the private market. But it seems obvious that social, health and criminal justice authorities should be supervising the drug trade, and special limitations (with regards to advertising or sale to minors, for instance) should be maintained.

Access to drugs that present significant risks to the user should be controlled in one way or another. Drugs with a greater potential for harmful use must be more tightly regulated. However, this regulatory scheme should not be so restrictive as to produce a significant illegal market in the substance. Once a significant illicit trade in a substance appears, we can be sure that our policy is a failure and bound to contribute to, rather than minimize the harms of the commerce and use of that substance. Therefore, the lack of impact of the current UN Conventions is best illustrated by today’s dimension of the illegal drugs industry.

Finally, it is necessary to make a well-defined distinction between problematic and non-problematic consumption. Of course neither of the two should be considered a crime. Instead, all efforts to prevent and treat the problems that may arise as a consequence of drug use should aim at promoting the well being of drug users and their surroundings, including measures to prevent diseases and guarantee access to all treatment. Consumers should be encouraged to maintain their use at a moderated level, and discouraged to increase it. Prevention campaigns should aim at encouraging responsible and informed attitudes towards drug consumption.

Regulation would not bring us a drug-free world. But it would improve the living conditions of millions of people, while attacking the interests of some of the world’s largest criminal strongholds.


This article has been kindly allowed for publication on Mama Coca by DRUGLINK.
Druglink is a bi-monthly magazine for all those with a professional interest in drug problems and responses to them. The news pages keep you informed about important current developments. Features articles provide in-depth analysis of drugs issues - local, national and international.

You will find the views and experiences of researchers, policy makers, front-line workers and drug users. Druglink reviews relevant publications, and lists new books, videos and events to keep you up to date with the latest literature, resources, courses and conferences.

DrugLink is published by DrugScope, the UK NGO on drug issues. Working closely with service providers and agencies across the drugs field, DrugScope is one of the leading centres for applied research on drug issues in the UK. Increasingly involved in policy analysis, DrugScope has been calling for a thorough evaluation and review of the UN drug conventions. The articles included in the special supplement are part of these efforts in linking domestic work with an international agenda.

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