The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) today released its latest annual report (available on February 20th here) on the global drug situation. The report strongly suggests that the INCB remains stuck in the last century when it comes to drug policy.
The INCB is the independent, quasi-judicial United Nations agency that monitors compliance with the UN anti-drug conventions, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. As such, it has generally been very conservative, and despite the rising global clamor for a new approach, this year is no exception.
One of the targets of the INCB's ire this year is marijuana, which the agency says the international community is underestimating. "The international community may wish to review the issue of cannabis," the report said. "Over the years, cannabis has become more potent and is associated with an increasing number of emergency room admissions," the report stated, adding that marijuana is frequently called a "gateway drug."
"In spite of all these facts, the use of cannabis is often trivialized and, in some countries, controls over the cultivation, possession and use of cannabis are less strict than for other drugs," the INCB complained. While some countries are lax on personal use and others allow medical use, public perceptions of the herb "are overlapping and confusing," the agency said.
It was also critical of opiate maintenance therapy and harm reduction programs. Heroin maintenance programs violate the UN conventions, while some harm reduction practices facilitate drug use, the INCB charges.
Another key concern for the INCB was the rise of the Internet in the trafficking of both licit and illicit drugs. "Drug traffickers are among the main users of encryption for Internet messaging and by this means evade law enforcement, coordinate shipments of drugs and launder money," the report warned. "A coordinated, global response is needed to meet this challenge."
The agency also reported that purveyors of chemicals used in the manufacture of illicit drugs are also using the Internet. Sometimes criminals will create fictitious companies or bogus authorizations to import such chemicals, the INCB charged.
But the INCB was also "alarmed" by the development of "rogue" Internet pharmacies. While it granted "that purchasing pharmaceuticals online can be beneficial, especially in areas where hospitals and pharmaceutical services are widely dispersed, [the INCB] is alarmed that 'rogue' pharmacies are encouraging drug abuse among vulnerable groups."
The report called for international action "to address the illegal sale of drugs on Internet pharmacies and web sites." "The Internet is a major problem," said professor Hamid Ghodse, the board's president. "That is why we started three years ago to have contact with Interpol on the issue. There are illicit Internet pharmacies and they do not have natural boundaries."
On the positive side, the INCB, which is charged with monitoring the use of opiate-based pain relievers, said "millions of patients" were suffering unnecessarily and urged governments to "stimulate" the use of such pain relievers." Although the access to controlled medicines, including morphine and codeine, is considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be a human right, it is virtually non-existent in over 150 countries," the report said. "The WHO estimates that at least 30 million patients and possibly as many as 86 million annually suffer from untreated moderate to severe pain."
But overall, the report was full of doom and gloom, warning that the global drug trade was expanding and becoming more violent. When assessing blame for this state of affairs, the INCB should look in the mirror, critics said.
"With the release of its annual report today, the International Narcotics Control Board boldly reaffirmed its shameful commitment to politics over science as well as its shocking indifference to the failures and harmful consequences of the global drug prohibition regime," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
"The INCB is the last of the UN drug agencies to still prioritize abstinence-only ideology over evidence-based policies that have proven effective in reducing drug-related harms. Its recommendations regarding substitution treatment, cannabis policy, and harm reduction measures to reduce death, disease, crime and suffering are all at odds with both scientific evidence and evolving policies in many parts of the world," Nadelmann continued. "Perhaps most stunning is the board's failure to consider the crime, violence and corruption as well as over-incarceration and violations of human rights associated with the global drug prohibition regime."
"The tragic irony is that it is the board's inhumane, unjust and irrational policing of the UN drug control system that has created or exacerbated most of the problems outlined in its report," agreed Danny Kushlick of Transform, the British drug policy foundation. "The board is complicit in gifting the illegal drug market to terror groups, paramilitaries and organized criminals, contributing to the political and economic destabilization of producer and transit countries and putting millions at risk of contracting blood-borne viruses. The INCB and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime pose a greater threat to global well-being than drugs themselves."
Nadelmann pointed out that there are alternatives. "Coming on the heels of the report released last week by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which came to very different conclusions with its call for a paradigm shift in global drug control policy, the INCB report seems sadly irrelevant to the most important issues in drug control today," he said. "Now that the Obama administration shows signs of joining with other nations in emphasizing health and science over anti-drug rhetoric and ideology, the INCB may soon be faced with the choice of evolving or going out of business. It will soon be one hundred years since the International Opium Congress convened in Shanghai in 1909, thereby initiating the global drug control system. An appropriate memorial would be the abolition of the INCB."