UN Drug Report Criticizes Safe Injection Sites 3/5/04

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The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) issued its annual report on drug use and drug trafficking across the globe Wednesday. While it grudgingly approved of some harm reduction measures, it pronounced others in violation of international laws, and it worried repeatedly about a perceived softening of official postures toward drug use as it ignored gross violations of human rights committed in the name of drug prohibition.

The report issued some new recommendations on dealing with youth, drugs, and violence at the micro-level, but for the most part merely noted the evidence of massive drug use and drug trafficking more than four decades after the signing of the United Nations Single Convention on Drugs in 1961 and recommended staying the course.

Along with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the Bureau of Narcotic Drugs, the INCB is part of a global anti-drug bureaucracy established by the Single Convention and enhanced by new conventions in 1971 and 1981. Its annual report gives the INCB, which is dominated by US-style prohibitionists, a handy vehicle for praising governments for intensifying anti-drug efforts and criticizing those who dare to stray from the flock.

This year, Canada was in the bull's eye. The opening of a government-sponsored safe injection facility in Vancouver aroused the INCB's ire. Such sites are sites "a grave concern," the board said, reiterating that they "violate the provisions of the international drug control conventions." The conventions require that controlled substances be used only for medical or scientific reasons, and safe injection sites don't qualify because they are "facilities where injecting drug abusers can inject drugs acquired illicitly," the INCB explained. "The board remains concerned about this development and urges the Canadian government to comply with its obligations under the international drug control conventions."

But Vancouver authorities were having none of it. Mayor Larry Campbell, a staunch supporter of harm reduction in general and the safe injection site in particular, told the Canadian Broadcast Corporation Thursday that the INCB "had no credibility in a country that is taking a progressive approach to drug addiction," while Vancouver police spokeswoman Constable Sarah Bloor added that police supported the site. "We believe this is one type of initiative that can move forward," she said.

The INCB also attacked another harm reduction practice, testing drugs for purity for consumers, as has been the case with ecstasy in rave and nightclub scenes in Europe and the United States. Sometimes such testing has been done with government approval, as was the case in Holland; other times it has been done independently by harm reduction groups such as Dance Safe (http://www.dancesafe.org) in the US.

Warning potential consumers that their drugs may be impure or adulterated "conveyed the wrong message on the risks of drug abuse and provided a false sense of safety for drug abusers," said the INCB. And that's a no-no because it "run[s] contrary to drug abuse prevention efforts required by governments" under the conventions. The board did give a qualified okay to drug maintenance and substitution regimes and needle exchange programs, but worried that the latter "should not promote and/or facilitate drug abuse."

What little acceptance the INCB showed for harm reduction was not nearly enough for the Senlis Council (http://www.senliscouncil.net), a grouping of European politicians, academics, and non-governmental organizations seeking innovative global drug policies. Noting that the INCB report had highlighted the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in Russia and Eastern Europe, but had only given grudging acceptance to needle exchange programs and rejected safe injection sites, the Senlis Council criticized the board as an "impeding" the fight against HIV/AIDS. "The rigid political stance of the INCB and the United Nations drug control regime is irresponsible," said Emmanuel Reinert, the council's executive director, in a statement released Wednesday.

The INCB also worried about trends in Western Europe. The board warned against "ambiguity" in European drug policies and practices, complaining that "authorities do not take measures against incitement of drug abuse, and drug abuse may even be promoted through certain media or other channels." And it expressed concern about the spread of cannabis cultivation and use in Europe and the "relaxation of controls."

There was no ambiguity in Thailand's drug policy last year, where an estimated 2500 people were killed by state agents as part of that country's war on drugs, and neither was there any criticism from the INCB for the Thai regime's brutality. That lack of concern prompted the Senlis Council to blast the INCB for favoring brute repression over "the core United Nations universal values of compassion, freedom, human rights and the continual fight for a better world."

The INCB implicitly recognized, however, that repression sometimes has unintended consequences. "The illicit cultivation of coca bush has no regard for international borders," the report noted as it warned of balloon effect increases in coca cultivation not only in traditional coca countries such as Bolivia and Peru, but also in Ecuador, and Venezuela.

And it noted the phoenix-like rise of Afghanistan to renewed prominence among the planet's opium producing countries, even if its analysis is arguably off the mark. "Despite the armed intervention and political change in Afghanistan and the fight against terror, illicit cultivation of and trafficking in opiates has grown, which may result in more political instability," wrote INCB, although it may have been more accurate if it had begun that sentence with "because of" instead of "despite." In any case, it was certainly accurate in its conclusion: "Opium cultivation in Afghanistan continued on an even larger scale in 2003."

Another year, another INCB report. As it is every year with the INCB, much has happened but little has changed.

Visit http://www.incb.org/e/ar/2003/menu.htm to read the International Narcotics Control Board Annual Report 2003 online.

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