The United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is once again going after Australia for its experiment with a safe injection room for heroin users in Sydney. The injection room, operated by the Uniting Church in the Kings Cross neighborhood, opened for business on May 6th (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/185.html#australia). Ten days later, INCB Herbert Schaepe criticized the heroin injecting facility, claiming it "sends the wrong message."
Speaking from Vienna, the organization's home, Schaepe told reporters, "What it is saying is that we condone the establishment of premises where people can get together to use illegal drugs." The INCB is "closely monitoring" the injection rooms in Sydney, Schaepe added. He also noted that the INCB will "discuss" the injection room's start-up when it meets in Vienna this week.
Schaepe's comments are only the latest in a series of salvos fired against the harm reduction measure by the INCB, which is charged with monitoring countries' compliance with international anti-drug treaties. The INCB's intervention helped postpone the injection room when first proposed. The UN drug agency has for several years provided ammunition for Prime Minister John Howard, an opponent of safe injection rooms, in his struggles with reformers and strong-headed state governments. The Sydney site operates with the approval of the New South Wales state government over the opposition of Prime Minister Howard.
In 1999, the INCB made its opposition formal. In a letter sent to the Australian parliament in November of that year, the board wrote: "The board maintains its position that permission or tacit consent given by any national, state or local authority for the establishment and operation of injection rooms or shooting galleries is contrary to the international drug control conventions.
"It is noted that the Government of NSW wishes to permit the establishment of a medically-supervised injection room for heroin addicts as a 'clinical' trial, limited in duration for a period of 18 months at one location. The board is unable to agree with this justification [of] the State's sanctioning of a facility where drugs may be abused 'safely.'
"The United Nations Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988, requires parties, subject to their constitutional principles and basic concept of their legal system, to establish possession and purchase of drugs for personal use (non-medical) consumption as a criminal offence. By permitting injection rooms, the Government could be considered to be facilitating in the commission of possession and use crimes, as well as other criminal offences including drug trafficking.
"Last, but not least, the board is concerned at the message that would be sent by the countenancing of these injection rooms could send the wrong message that Australia is a place where illicit substances can be abused with impunity."
That the New South Wales injection room has remained an irritant to the INCB, which seeks to hold back a rising tide of harm reduction and drug law reform efforts, is evident in the agency's 2000 annual report, released in February (http://www.incb.org/e/ind_ar.htm). The report notes with some concern that "harm reduction continues to be a major element of the strategy on drug abuse in Australia and New Zealand" and warns that "harm reduction should not become a goal in itself."
The board also found itself dismayed that "the social acceptance of illicit drugs in Australia remained high, with many people being vocally in favor of the legalization of drugs, in particular cannabis." And while the INCB acknowledged the rising death toll among heroin users, it emphasized its consternation that some states "choose to support policies that run counter to the treaty obligation limiting the use of drugs to medical and scientific purposes only by establishing heroin injection room where illicitly obtained drugs can be injected under supervision."
The INCB normally receives little attention from drug reformers since its role is fundamentally that of a nagging auntie, but with the removal of the baleful US presence on the board and upheavals afoot at the UN's Office of Drug Control Policy, the time could be approaching to make the drug agency's mandate and mission contested terrain.