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Multilateral drug control was one of the twentieth century’s greatest achievements, but according to the 2008 International Narcotics Control Board report, the lethal side-effects of the illicit drug trade in many countries, coupled with the unavailability of narcotics for medical purpose in others, revealed that major efforts were still needed to maintain the system’s integrity.
Melvyn Levitsky, a former United States ambassador and a current member of International Narcotics Control Board (ICNB), provided an overview of the report, which was launched in New York at Headquarters this afternoon. Discussing a wide range of issues, he underlined one of the Board’s key conclusions that, globally, more attention needed to be focused on prevention strategies since gaps in preventive efforts stimulated drug trafficking, abuse and the need for treatment.
He also stressed that only some “harm reduction” methods -- such as the use of substitute treatment most commonly seen in methadone programmes, well-managed needle exchange schemes and alternative sentencing procedures -- were in accord with anti-drug conventions. Others, such as drug injection rooms, general consumption rooms and “crack kits”, were not.
One area where many countries were struggling was in combating illegal, rogue Internet pharmacies, which allowed legal and illegal drugs to be purchased often after phoney e-mail consultations with doctors. The Board expected to publish some guidelines for helping stem that practice, he said. “Our plea is to make sure that Governments take a look at this to see if there is something multilaterally that can be done,” he added.
INCB monitors and promotes the implementation of the three drug control conventions -- the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, he said.
The Board’s 13 members are elected by the Economic and Social Council, and over 95 per cent of United Nations Member States -- covering over 99 per cent of the world’s population -- are parties to the three instruments. “The drug conventions are the ‘Bible’ with regard to the way countries are to carry out their obligations in drug control since they have signed and ratified these conventions”, Mr. Levitsky said.
He noted that 2009 marked the centennial anniversary of the International Opium Commission, which was held in 1909 in Shanghai and had spurred efforts to create today’s international drug control regime. In addition, a high-level meeting would be held later this year in Vienna to evaluate the progress made since the General Assembly’s last special session on drugs in 1998.
He said that among the areas where positive progress had been made was the growth in regional drug control initiatives, as the realization spread that countries acting alone could not deal with the problem of illegal drugs. Of particular note were efforts in Latin America, where the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) was making inroads, and the ongoing initiatives by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and among Canada, the United States and Mexico. Recent developments in West Africa had caught the attention of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
In many places, such regional initiatives were bearing fruit, said Mr. Levitsky, pointing out that today in South-East Asia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Thailand were almost opium free. While Myanmar remained a problem, production there had, nevertheless, decreased.
A system to control the “precursor” chemicals needed to refine the final intoxicating product from its raw form -- heroin from opium, cocaine from coca leaves, methamphetamine from pseudoephedrine and ephedrine -- had also been created so countries could measure the import and export of different substances. After the rapid rise of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine from Asia, Mexico had banned the import of those chemicals to stem its domestic methamphetamine production.
The report also notes among its most positive findings that drug abuse among youth and teens had gone down 24 per cent in the last eight years in the United States, the world’s largest drug market. He cautioned, however, that the use of illegal drugs remained high in the United States with the illicit use of over-the-counter drugs having become, perhaps, the major problem. Both the over-advertisement and over-prescription of pharmaceuticals contributed to their rising use, he added.
Turning to the areas of general concern cited in the report, he highlighted the rising levels of tolerance of cannabis and marijuana, and the decriminalization of medical marijuana despite rising levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) due to sophisticated growing technologies, increased emergency-room visits after recreational use of marijuana and a greater number of studies linking the drug’s use to mental illnesses like schizophrenia and short-term memory loss. Bucking that trend, the United Kingdom had also moved cannabis from a schedule C to a schedule B drug, in recognition of the risks involved, he said.
Like the world community, the Board was quite concerned about Afghanistan, he said. Although cultivation areas had been reduced there last year by roughly 19 per cent, yields remained disproportionately high, resulting in a decrease of only 6 per cent in total production -- or more than enough to supply the illegal drug habits of people around the world. Neighbouring countries -- such as the “‑stans” to the north and Iran to the west -- were suffering from that oversupply as their user populations grew. In Iran’s case, the number of opiate users were estimated at around 3 million people.
Focusing on other specific regions, he said that, although yields had gone down, coca cultivation in the Andes was up in terms of total area, and cocaine smuggling remained a particular concern in that region, he said. A rise in production had been seen in Bolivia. While Colombia had taken “quite effective” efforts to combat cocaine smuggling, Venezuela remained a transit State for much of the cocaine going to West Africa and Europe. Drug-fuelled violence in Mexico had also risen.
Other findings showed that 27 per cent of Europe-bound cocaine transited West African States such as Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Cape Verde, prompting ECOWAS to hold a conference on drug trafficking’s spill-over effects, especially the weakening State institutions and the rise of corruption. The report also notes growing instances of methamphetamine being produced in Canada and smuggled to South-East Asia.
To a question on the report’s findings about the rise of the United Arab Emirates -- particularly its free trade zones -- as a major transit route for drugs, he said the Gulf area had not historically been considered a locus of drug abuse because of religious prohibitions and the strictness of regional States. But there was heightened tension between free trade areas and the ability to smuggle drugs in small quantities but high-value shipments. Customs officials and other authorities should pay more attention to that flow and establish better internal systems to deal with drug abuse.
Pressed about what could be done in Afghanistan, he stressed that while the promotion of sustainable alternative livelihoods anchored around alternative crops and small industry or crafts was needed, some kind of security and effective Government presence would be required to bring sufficient infrastructure to support them. It was hoped that the arrival of 17,000 additional United States troops over the next several months might provide training and equipment for the Afghan Government’s eradication efforts, as well as providing the security needed to allow alternative livelihoods to gain a toe-hold.
He stressed that regional leaders also needed to step up their contributions, as did North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries and United Nations agencies running programmes on the ground. While the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) had made some progress on that front, it was only on the margins and the major obstacle remained the lack of Government control. Moreover, the demand side also needed work, although it was clear that supply exceeded demand and spilled over in detrimental ways to local and neighbouring populations.
Responding to a question on medical marijuana, he said the challenge of medical marijuana was in devising a dosage system for something that could be smoked. The Board believed that if there was a scientific means of prescribing marijuana via something like the Federal Drug Administration’s approval in the United States, it would be in line with the international drug conventions. Pointing out that some chemicals in the marijuana plant could be simulated as in a drug called Marinol, he said the same principle applied to extracting compounds from the plant’s seed or leaves.
When asked about the report’s findings on the use of coca products by Bolivia’s indigenous populations, he said the Board’s position was that Bolivia was in contravention of the anti-drug accords and had urged the current Government there to meet its obligations as signatories to the 1971 Convention. If, as Bolivia claimed, chewing coca leaves was done to blunt hunger pains and combat altitude sickness, other ways to combat these problems, such as promoting a better standard of living, might be called for. In addition, if Bolivia wanted to change how coca leaf was handled in the conventions, there was a procedure to do that through the World Health Organization (WHO), or by seeking an amendment to the conventions with the support of other countries.
Asked about the recent headlines about Olympic champion Michael Phelps’ marijuana use and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s ingestion of performance-enhancing drugs, he said both cases were terrible examples for the world’s youth, but the Board could not say what should be done legally in either -- particularly since it was not yet known what substance Rodriguez had taken.
U.N. International 'Narcotics' Control Board