Monday, March 31, 2008

UN Secretary General calls for decriminalisation of injecting drug users

UN Secretary-General supports calls for Asian governments to amend outdated laws criminalising injecting drug users and other stigmatized groups.

At the launch of a major new report on HIV in Asia (March 26), UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called for increased health and human rights protections for people living with HIV, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and young people who inject drugs.

"Legislation can also stand in the way [of] scaling up towards universal access -- in cases where vulnerable groups are criminalized for their lifestyles" said Ban Ki-Moon, adding in his statement on the launch of the report; "As you have heard, I fully support the recommendations of the Commission."

UNAIDS Executive Director Dr Peter Piot (left), with United Nations Secretary-General Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, during the presentation of the new report “Redefining AIDS in Asia – Crafting an effective response” on 26 March in New York.

The 258 page report by the Independent Commission on AIDS in Asia (established by UNAIDS) is entitled Redefining AIDS in Asia: Crafting an Effective Response. Commenting on the report at the UN launch press conference on March 26th UNAIDS director Peter Piot said : "I look to Asian Governments to amend outdated laws criminalizing the most vulnerable sections of society, and take all the measures needed to ensure they live in dignity,"

Professor C. Rangarajan (right), Chair of the Commission on AIDS in Asia, presented the report of the Commission to the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, 26 March 2008.

The report urges governments to provide a comprehensive package of harm reduction, including needle exchange programs and opiate substitution treatment, and says governments should abandon counterproductive "war on drugs" programmes. One of its key recommendations is to:

Avoid programmes that accentuate AIDS-related stigma

It is important to recognize that not all interventions aimed at most-at-risk groups are effective, and to note which have been proven to be ineffective, or even counter-productive. In their enthusiasm to initiate large-scale prevention programmes, Governments are seen to adopt certain programmes which accentuate stigma and violate the human rights of most-at-risk groups. These include ‘crack-downs’ on red-light areas and arrest of sex workers, large-scale arrests of young drug users under the ‘war on drugs’ programmes, mandatory testing in healthcare settings without the consent of the person concerned and releasing confidential information on people who are HIV positive through the media.

These initiatives can be counterproductive and can keep large numbers of at-risk groups and people living with HIV from accessing even the limited services being provided by the countries.

Full report (1.6 megs)

UN webcast (real media) of press conference launch ( Piot at 15 mins, Ki-Moon 18 mins)

see also:

Statement from UNAIDS to the March 2008 UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Clergy Speaks Out Against 'The War On Drugs'

Film maker and author Mike Gray in cooperation with the US-based Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative has created the following two part documentary entitled "Clergy Speaks Out Against The War On Drugs". The title is pretty self explanatory. Advocates and institutions that support prohibition often assume the hue of religious dogma, and drug warriors regularly appeal to religious morality to justify the continuation of a policy that simply cannot stand any objective scrutiny. So it is welcome to see religious leaders exercising their moral authority to speak out against the injustice and inhumanity of the drug war.

"It's so important for us, as both religious leaders... as members of congregations, to resist any sort of complicity, any sort of willingness to go along with this, because I think that ultimately really compromises our life of faith and our own morality."
- Father Earl Kooperkamp, St. Mary's Episcopal

"I would hold the religious community responsible for that. I think it's an aspect of American puritanism/ And then we got into hysteria around that -- in a way it's a projection of anxiety onto certain people, again for puritanical purposes. And so, once we went down this path, then fueled by religious communities who supported it, it just picked up steam. And now it's one of the reasons that we, as religious leaders, need to speak out against it, because we were responsible for it."
- The Very Rev. Scott Richardson, St. Paul's Episcopal, San Diego

"It needs to be repealed. It can't be just reformed. The whole system has to.. the whole drug policy and those laws have to be repealed."
- Sister Marion Defeis, Catholic prison chaplain, ret.

Part One is the main documentary and it is less than twelve minutes. Part two are edited "out takes" of greater length which expand upon the message.

part one

part two

more comment from religious leaders on drug polciy and law reform

Thursday, March 27, 2008

UNODC Director declares international drug control system is not ‘fit for purpose’

Below is a copy of our latest press release, drawing attention to one of the more encouraging discussion papers to emerge from this month's UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna - now available on the UNODC website. More coverage of the CND here here here and here. See also TNI and IHRA HR2 blogs. More discussion to follow.

UN building in Vienna, host to this years CND

Executive Director of UN Office on Drugs and Crime declares international drug control system is not ‘fit for purpose’

In an extraordinarily candid report, the head of the UN agency responsible for overseeing the international conventions on drugs, describes the multi-lateral drug control system as not ‘fit for purpose’. He also explains how the international regime has created significant unintended consequences.

The report, "Making drug control 'fit for purpose': Building on the UNGASS decade" was made available, but not widely disseminated, at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna earlier this month.

It states:

“There is indeed a spirit of reform in the air, to make the conventions fit for purpose and adapt them to a reality on the ground that is considerably different from the time they were drafted. With the multilateral machinery to adapt the conventions already available, all we need is: first, a renewed commitment to the principles of multilateralism and shared responsibility; secondly, a commitment to base our reform on empirical evidence and not ideology; and thirdly, to put in place concrete actions that support the above, going beyond mere rhetoric and pronouncement." (p.13)

“Looking back over the last century, we can see that the control system and its application have had several unintended consequences - they may or may not have been unexpected but they were certainly unintended.” (p.10)

“The first unintended consequence is a huge criminal black market that thrives in order to get prohibited substances from producers to consumers, whether driven by a 'supply push’ or a 'demand pull', the financial incentives to enter this market are enormous. There is no shortage of criminals competing to claw out a share of a market in which hundred fold increases in price from production to retail are not uncommon”. (p.10)

“The second unintended consequence is what one night call policy displacement. Public health, which is clearly the first principle of drug control…was displaced into the background”. (p.10)

“The third unintended consequence is geographical displacement. lt is often called the balloon effect because squeezing (by tighter controls) one place produces a swelling (namely an increase)in another place…” (p.10)

“A system appears to have been created in which those who fall into the web of addiction find themselves excluded and marginalized from the social mainstream, tainted with a moral stigma, and often unable to find treatment even when they may be motivated to want it.” (p.11)

“The concept of harm reduction is often made into an unnecessarily controversial issue as if there were a contradiction between (i) prevention and treatment on one hand and (ii) reducing the adverse health and social consequences of drug use on the other hand. This is a false dichotomy. These policies are complementary. (p.18)

“It stands to reason, then, that drug control, and the implementation of the drug Conventions, must proceed with due regard to health and human rights.” (p.19)

Danny Kushlick, Transform Drug Policy Foundation Director said:

“This report is a welcome contrast to the politically motivated rhetoric that has dominated much of the Commission on Narcotic Drug’s deliberations in the past. Mr Costa is to be congratulated for clearly stating what many in the drug policy reform movement have been saying for decades. That, for all its good intentions, the international drug control system has created unsustainable negative consequences and that its fitness for purpose in the modern world, and possible reforms, must be fundamentally explored.

“It is to be hoped that the issues that the Director has raised are seriously debated by and amongst member states in the coming year of review for the UN drug strategy. Despite the positive words from the UNODC director this substantive debate has clearly not begun yet.”



Danny Kushlick, Director +44 (0) 7970 174747
Steve Rolles, Information Officer +44 (0) 7980 213943

Notes for Editors:

"Making drug control 'fit for purpose': Building on the UNGASS decade" (pdf)

(update April 02: the above link is now to the UNODC site instead of the scanned copy previously on the Transform website)
  • In its review of UK drug policy of 2002 the UK Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee made 24 recommendations including:

"That the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways - including the possibility of legalisation and regulation - to tackle the global drugs dilemma." (recommendation 24)

Image copyright Transform 2008

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Help make the Parliamentary Bill process fit for the 21st century

Having witnessed at painfully close quarters the hideous gestation and birth 2005's appalling populist pre-election monstrosity that was the Dugs Bill (truly the Rosemary's Baby of modern drug legislation) I cannot help but applaud the latest effort from the internet democracy legends at TheyWorkforYou to drag the Parliamentary Bill process from the dark ages into the modern world. TheyWorkforYou already provide the most brilliant free service in making Hansard available to the world in a way that is accessible, user friendly , and allows feedback (y'know democracy etc.)

So commoners, don't forget that the big scary building with all the pointy towers you see on the news, the one full of all the bossy posh people shouting, well, it's actually your house, paid for by you, and all those people are in fact your servants, they do your bidding and can only produce horrors like the Drugs Bill bad things when you're not looking and let them get away it. So please read this, sign up, and pay attention.

The Nice Polite Campaign to
Gently Encourage Parliament to Publish Bills
in a 21st Century Way, Please.

Writing, discussing and voting on bills is what we employ our MPs to do. If enough MPs vote on bills they become the law, meaning you or I can get locked up if they pass a bad one.

Bills are, like, so much more important than what MPs spend on furniture.

The problem is that the way in which Bills are put out is completely incompatible with the Internet era, so nobody out there ever knows what the heck people are actually voting for or against. We need to free our Bills in order for most people to be able to understand what matters about them.


Being the people who run TheyWorkForYou we spend lots of our time taking rubbish, broken information from Parliament and fixing it up so that it makes a nice, usable site so you can find out whether your MP is actually working for you or not. Lots of people seem to like it, nearly 2 million came to visit last year.

It’s time for Parliament to improve its act and start publishing these vital documents properly in the first place. Quite apart from the fact that we’re a tiny charity without many resources to fix this information, you’re paying for them to produce it in a uselessly old fashioned way. Unless Parliament produces better bills:

  • We can’t give you email alerts to tell you when a bill mentions something you might be interested in.
  • We can’t tell you what amendments your own MP is asking for, or voting on.
  • We can’t help people who know about bills annotate them to explain what they’re really going on about for everyone else.
  • We can’t build services that would help MPs and their staff notice when they were being asked to vote on dumb or dubious things.
  • We can’t really give a rounded view of how useful your MP is if we can’t see their involvement with the bill making process.
  • We can’t do about 12 zillion other things that we’re not even bright enough to think of yet.

to find out more information click here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

More reflections on the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union have produced a set of short films that discuss some of the issues raised by the UNODC director's speech at this months UN Commission on Narcotic drugs in Vienna. The general reaction, that I shared from my experiences at the event, is that whilst there was some positive rhetoric in his words, suggesting that some of the messages from the NGO community are being heard (in particular the need for human rights observance in drug law enforcement and a move away from some of the more obviously excessive and failed elements of the 'drug war') there was a vital need to see these good intentions translated into action and more effective and de-politicised monitoring systems. Litttle or no evidence of this was forthcoming in the speeches or elsewhere.

Some of the director's unscripted remarks have also prompted concerns that the engagement with Civil Society is tokenism, essentially a PR attempt to gloss over the continuation of the failed punitive approach of past decades, remaining heavily skewed towards military and police enforcement and supply reduction. Even if this is not the case there is still a huge distance to travel before the appalling failings of global prohibition can be corrected and a more just, humane and effective drug policy built on public health principles and effective legal regulation can be put in place. For the small progress that is being achieved tempering some drug war extremes there remains precious little engagement with the debate around modernising the UN drug control systems and related legislation.

There was similarly a familiar degree of sophistry when it cames to claims for the success of the UN global drug strategy. Like our very own Home Office the UNODC parades process successes and cherry picked, mis-contextualised and misleading data as success whilst failing to acknowledge long term systematic failings against meaningful indicators (often including its own). 1998's fantasy aspirations for a 'drug free world' have evaporated, to be replaced by claims that 'containing the problem' is success - when not even this modest claim, on even cursory inspection of their own dubious literature, has been achieved. Some of these issues are discussed in the drugreporter blog entry here, and in this second short film of interviews with various NGO representatives on the subject...

The International Drug Policy Consortium will be producing a detailed report on the CND in the next few days, including text of the various NGO contributions.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Launch of Transform's On-line Volunteer Community

Transform has long faced the quandary of people approaching us and asking how they can help us achieve our mission, however, due to limited resources we’ve often been unable to fully utilise these kind offers, and make use of a potentially massive resource. We really do need your help though and Ed, one of our office based volunteers, has created an on-line community which allows you to access and feed into a number of Transform projects and contribute your ideas.

So regardless of the time you have available or where you’re located please log on to have your say, and get involved.
(then click ‘create account’)

Our latest project, amongst a number of others, is the ‘world map project.’

This is going to be a unique website resource that contains information on different countries drugs policies and laws (covering legal and currently illegal drugs). We’re currently trying to research and add content and links to this developing resource, a good example of how you can contribute to what is essentially and open source wiki-style evolving resource. (Remember to cite references for all contributed information - or we cant use it for the finished product).

Other initial projects include contributing your ideas to the Welsh Drug Strategy, reviewing books, de-constructing articles, helping us to make build up a series of video resources, and distributing our newly translated leaflets into China. This is just the start to get you thinking. Ideas for new projects to help take the reform agenda forward to new audiences in new ways are welcome - thats the whole idea. You can discuss ideas and projects in the volunteers forum within the site. Log on to find out more.

This volunteer community project is still at an early developmental stage, a BETA version, so please let us know your ideas about how we can develop this site and give us any feedback that you have (positive or negative).

Thanks, and if you have any problems or questions please email us at:

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Drug policy reform lobby on The Colbert Report

The excellent Stephen Colbert political satire show 'The Colbert Report' poking fun at the drug law reform lobby (its satire kids, he's actually poking fun at their critics). Ethan Nadlemann from the Drug Policy Alliance gamely plays along in the interview.

sorry about the ads at the end.

Help save Daily Dose from closure

Absolutely terrible news from Daily Dose this week, that unless adequate sponsorship can be found, the peerless drug news service that has been running since 2002 will close at the end of the month. For any blog readers that don't know about Daily Dose, and there cant be many, it is a BRILLIANT daily drug news listing website (and free subscription email) that is hand-complied 365 days (and nights) a year. Testimony to its brilliance is that it has over 6000 subscribers and gets 800,000 hits a month.

For Transform the service is invaluable. Google news alerts and similar automated news aggregators are, lets face it, a bit rubbish. They completely lack the depth, editorial input, and human touch that makes Daily Dose so incredibly useful. It is the editorial genius of Jim and the rest of the Wired Initiative team that means it outstrips any of the automated parliamentary news filter services Transform have used in the past, as well as automated news search services like Lexis Nexis - and these cost serious money, whilst Daily Dose is completely free. The great thing about the editorial content is the non-biased coverage from all news and information services across the web, reflecting the full range of media outlets and opinion in the drugs field. That's why everyone loves it and everyone uses it - from Whitehall and Government, through the treatment field, and across the non-government sector.

Daily Dose is a non profit free service supported by sponsorship - which to any commercial players in the drugs field should appear to be a complete bargain given the site's amazing profile. If there is one thing Daily Dose has fallen short on, it is marketing itself - probably because they are so obsessed with turning out first class content.

So to all you potential sponsors: compare the measly £5K you would have to spend to have your logo associated with the much loved and legendary Daily Dose (raking in 10 million hits a year, and a million or so emails direct to marketers-dream demographic in the drugs field) to the untold thousands you shell out on having one of those pointless fancy stalls at yet another awful drug conference where you speak to about three bored people who really just want a free pen.

Monday, March 17, 2008

UNODC and the NGO forum: "yet again sir, you do not answer my question"

Below is a short Youtube film made my the Hungarian Civil liberties Union (who also provide a commentary on their blog here), one of the numerous NGOs attending the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna last week. The encounter between UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa and Frederick Polak from the Netherlands, representing ENCOD, was one of the more depressing episodes of the weeks deliberations, following on immediately from the '1000 lunatics' comments described last week (more video incoming).

We should probably not get too distracted by the rudeness and poor conduct of one individual even if he is the executive director of the UNODC (not for long one suspects, if he continues to insult and condescend to members of civil society who do not share his viewpoint).

More importantly, there were some relatively positive developments to take away from last weeks event, both in terms of resolutions that were past (more details on the momentous human rights resolution to follow), and in terms of NGO engagement which, despite the inappropriate and ill tempered outbursts from Costa, was unprecedented in its scope and impact.

I will blog a more detailed reflection on the week in the next few days, including links to the various relevant NGO and official documentation and reports.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

UNODC director describes DPA event as '1000 lunatics', 'obviously on drugs'

In a strange and disturbing turn of events here in Vienna at the UN CND, the UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa, who had seemed to be making positive rhetorical gestures to the concerns of the NGO community with his speech on Monday, has this morning managed to spectacularly embarrass the UNODC with some intemperate remarks insulting a large swathe of the very civil society he has been at such pains to claim meaningful engagement with.

a low point for UNODC civil society engagement

There is a parallel meeting taking place today titled 'Not so silent partners' ,an NGO forum organised by the Vienna NGO committee considering NGO contributions to the UNGASS review process. Costa addressed the forum this morning and raised his attendance at the DPA conference in New Orleans last December (blogged here). He noted:

"I attended the meeting of the drug alliance [DPA] in New Orleans last December, 1200 participants, 1000 lunatics, 200 good people to talk to. The other ones obviously on drugs."
(it was being filmed by the HCLU so will be on YouTube and this blog next week).

By any standard this was an extraordinarily offensive, inappropriate and stupid remark for the head of the UNODC to make in any public forum, let alone an NGO forum about UN engagement, and one where many of those present were also in New Orleans (including myself as it happens). The audience in New Orleans were in fact very polite and respectful, both for the fact that Costa had made the effort to attend and engage, and for some of his more conciliatory remarks (and in truth Costa hardly spoke to anyone in New Orleans that would enable him to form an opinion or label them). He has managed to offend a broad spectrum of opinion present at the DPA event, the DPA itself, and indeed the drug user groups with whom the UNODC process is nominally engaging at a high level. When challenged by a member of the audience, Costa refused to apologise for the remark stating 'that's my opinion' and 'I don't know which class you are from' (i.e lunatic / good person).

He has a bit of a temper, does Costa. This had also been exposed in New Orleans when he had lost his temper having been challenged on the availabilty / use correlation (with reference to the relatively low levels of cannabis use in the Netherlands - see blog). He had lashed out at the Netherlands referring to the Netherlands 'poisoning the rest of Europe' with its amphetamine production. This remark, also filmed, had made its way back to the Dutch Ambassador who then made an official complaint to the UN and subsequently received a written apology from Costa.

I expect he will have some more apologising to do after today. Totally unhelpful and completely out of keeping with the UN spirit.

UNAIDS and NGO statements shake CND out of its stupor

Amidst the mind numbing tedium of hours of pre-prepared self-congratulatory country presentations at this year's United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (which I am currently attending in Vienna) there were a few rays of light that challenged the consensus that 'everything is fine - let's continue as before'. A few of the non state participants briefly threatened to turn the thematic session in to the 'debate' it was billed as. (a more detailed commentary on the CND to follow)

There were a series of useful contributions from various NGO's (given unprecedented access to the plenary session this year) including this powerful statement from Rick Lines at IHRA, that challenged the CND to fully incorporate human rights into drug control mechanisms, with specific reference to this being the 60th anniversary of the UN universal declaration of human rights.

Below is the complete text of the contribution from the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (with references) delivered to yesterday's plenary session by Susan Timberlake. Its pragmatic tone was particularly striking in that it followed series of desperately dry political statements, including notably from the US, that entirely failed to touch on the public health vs criminalisation debate, HIV, or the rights of users, and in the case of the US, actively spoke out against harm reduction. That UNAIDS the statement additionally came with the UN imprimatur - so was impossible for the state representatives to ignore.

Chair, distinguished representatives, ladies and gentlemen, The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) is pleased to have this opportunity to address the Commission on Narcotic Drugs to seek your support in breaking the dangerous link between injecting drug use and the HIV epidemic. As measures to control drugs and measures to control HIV are critically intertwined, the steps governments take in drug control are likely to have significant impact on progress against HIV.

In most regions of the world, unsafe injecting drug use is a major vector of HIV transmission. It has been estimated that up to 10% of all HIV infections worldwide result from injecting drug use, up to 30% if infections in Sub-Saharan Africa are excluded. Once HIV enters a community of people who inject drugs, it can move to the rest of the population if appropriate steps are not taken.

UNODC, WHO and UNAIDS recommend a comprehensive set of measures for people who use drugs that includes the following: (1) needle and syringe programmes; (2) opioid substitution therapy; (3) voluntary HIV counselling and testing; (4) anti-retroviral therapy; (5) prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections; (6) condom programming; (7) targeted information, education and communication; (8) hepatitis diagnosis, treatment and vaccination; and (9) tuberculosis prevention, diagnosis and treatment. The efficacy of these interventions is supported by overwhelming evidence.

Yet in spite of the fact that we know how to address the close links between HIV infection and unsafe injecting drug use, many countries fail to provide this comprehensive set of measures to drug users, who instead continue to face discrimination and other human rights violations. In 2006, fewer than 20% of people who inject drugs received some type of HIV prevention service, with coverage of less than 10% reported in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Even fewer have access to opioid substitution therapy, needle and syringe programmes, or anti-retroviral therapy, despite the fact that people who use drugs can achieve the same levels of adherence to treatment as other patients with HIV.

In the 3:1 ratio mentioned by Mr. Costa – where enforcement receives three times the resources that prevention and treatment receive – it is clear that many countries take an approach to drug use that focuses on criminalization while neglecting a public health response. A public health response would provide treatment to people who evidence drug dependency and illness and would employ health and social interventions, which have been shown to reduce the harms associated with drug use. Instead, legal and social barriers severely impede access to such health and social interventions. For instance, many countries criminalize possession of syringes without prescriptions and continue to classify methadone and other opioid substitutes as illegal. In many countries, imprisonment and forced treatment with ineffective methods are the primary responses to drug use, with little to nothing being done about HIV. And in some countries, imprisonment is compounded by killings, rape, unwarranted use of force, arbitrary arrests, harassment, extortion, and violation of medical privacy and confidentiality.

Chair, distinguished delegates, UNAIDS supports countries to implement a rights-based response to the HIV epidemic for two reasons: first, because it fulfills obligations under human rights law, and secondly, because it is the most effective way to address HIV. In our efforts against the epidemic, we recognize that all people, even those engaged in activities that are deemed criminal, have human rights, including people who use drugs. Even where drug use is criminalized, people who use drugs have the rights to be free from violence and murder, to benefit from full due process before the law, to be free from discrimination and any forced treatment that violates medical ethics, and to receive comprehensive and voluntary health and social services of good quality, including for drug-related illness and for infections, such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis.

In the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS (2001) and in the Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS (2006), governments have also committed themselves to an approach to HIV that is based on human rights and the full participation of those affected. In particular, they committed themselves “to intensify efforts to ensure a wide range of prevention programmes, including harm-reduction”, “to overcoming legal...or other barriers that block access to effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, medicines, commodities and services”, and “to intensify efforts to enact, strengthen or enforce legislation….to eliminate all forms of discrimination against and to ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights of… members of vulnerable groups”. All this in the context of committing “to scale up efforts…with full and active participation of people living with HIV, vulnerable groups.. towards the goal of universal access to…prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010”.

UNAIDS is working hard to support governments to fulfill these commitments, and much progress is being made. In this context, we ask that those engaged in drug control efforts: (1) respect and protect human rights, including the rights of people who use drugs, (2) ensure access to HIV and health and social services to people who use drugs and remove impediments to such access, and (3) allow people who use drugs or their representatives to participate in the design and delivery of HIV and harm-reduction services so that programmes will be as effective as possible.

Progress towards universal access will be reviewed at the High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS in June where UNAIDS is also supporting the involvement of civil society as critical partners for accountability. In this regard, a representative of people who use drugs is included in the President of the General Assembly's Civil Society Task Force for the High Level Meeting. In order to provide leadership and guidance to governments in the area of HIV and drug use, UNAIDS urges the consideration by the Commission of measures to:

  • Help establish a process by which States’ obligations relating to drug control are clarified to ensure that they conform to human rights obligations, and indeed support the achievement of public health and human rights, including universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

  • Support States to enact and implement domestic legislation and policy in the area of drug control that will protect human rights and the public health, including of that of people who use drugs, either vulnerable to HIV or already infected.

  • Finally, encourage States to use the High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS in June and the current review based on the UNGASS on Drugs (1998) to consider and intensify their efforts to address HIV in the context of drug use, including greatly increasing voluntary and effective HIV prevention, treatment, care and support programmes for people who use drugs.
UNAIDS thanks the Commission and its valuable Cosponsor, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and offers its full support in any manner possible.


Aceijas, Friedman, Cooper, Wiessing, Stimson, Hickman, Estimates of injecting drug users at the national and local level in developing and transitional countries, and gender and age distribution, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Volume 82, Suppl III, June, 2006.

IPU/UNDP/UNAIDS (2007). Taking action against HIV. A handbook for parliamentarians. Geneva.

Lert F, Kazatchkine M (2007). Antiretroviral HIV treatment and care for injecting drug users: An evidence-based overview. International Journal of Drug Policy 18: 255-261.

Materials produced for UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights, Eighth Meeting, December, 2007.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNAIDS (2006). International guidelines on HIV/AIDS and human rights (2006 consolidated version). Geneva.

UNAIDS (2005). Intensifying HIV prevention: a UNAIDS policy position paper. Geneva.

UNAIDS (2006). Report on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Geneva.

UNAIDS (2007). Practical guidelines for intensifying HIV prevention: Towards universal

access. Geneva.

UNAIDS/WHO AIDS epidemic update, December, 2007

WHO/UNODC Evidence for action series and policy briefs available at Ball et al. (2005)

WHO/UNAIDS/UNICEF (2007). Towards universal access: scaling up priority HIV/AIDS interventions in the health sector: progress report, April 2007. Geneva.

WHO/UNODC/UNAIDS. Technical Guide for Countries to Set Targets for Universal Access to HIV Prevention, Treatment and Care for Injecting Drug Users (IDUs) (in draft)

Monday, March 10, 2008

The next ten year UN drug strategy could be the last under absolute prohibition

Transform's CND press release is copied below

UK drug charity: 'The next ten year UN drug strategy could be the last under absolute prohibition'

News release
No Embargo
Date: 10 March 2008

Transform Drug Policy Foundation, the UK's leading source of expertise on drug policy and law reform, in attendance at this week's UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, has highlighted the tensions and conflict within the UN drug enforcement structures. Growing international momentum for more flexibility in drug control policy means that the new 10-year UN drug strategy could be the last to strictly advocate the rigid failed prohibitionist doctrines of the last century.

Steve Rolles, speaking from the CND in Vienna, said:

“We are witnessing a crumbling in the consensus behind a dogmatic prohibitionist approach to drug control. The dramatic failures of global drug prohibition over the last ten years, during which time the problems associated with drug misuse and illicit production have worsened dramatically, demonstrate that the current punitive enforcement led approach to drug control cannot continue for another ten years. The costs of the policy are enormous, and there are no tangible benefits, just further costs in terms of increased drug harms and a violent destabilising illicit trade worth over £300 billion a year. The 'drug free world' called for in 1997 has proved elusive, not to say, absurd.

The UN drug conventions that enshrine prohibition into domestic law across the world were drafted in a different era - some of the 1961 convention was drafted in the 1940s - when the problems we faced were entirely different. The strictures they place on country level policy making, ruling out entire swathes of policy options, are no longer appropriate or relevant in the modern world facing entirely new challenges and threats. Many countries are already pushing at the letter and spirit of the treaties in their pragmatic attempts to address the problems they face. The outdated UN treaties, and the dogmatic approach of the UN agencies that oversee them are increasingly becoming an obstacle rather than an aid in this process. The ongoing failure of the UN drug control agencies to adhere to policy norms such as human rights observance, evidence based evaluation and impact analysis undermines the wider work of the UN.

Whilst parts of the UN drug conventions are valuable, there is a clear need for the UN treaties to be reformed to allow more flexibility for individual states to adopt policies that they deem appropriate to meet the challenges they face. This must involve a removal of the absolute prohibitions on individual states exploring options for legally regulated markets for the non-medical use of some psychoactive drugs. In 2002 the UK Home Affairs Select Committee called for a debate at the UN on alternatives to prohibition. It is an enormous disappointment to many taking part that this debate will not take place at the Vienna meeting.

The prospect of a £3 trillion turnover for international organised crime over the next decade and the devastating impacts of these illicit profits in destabilising nation states and fuelling conflict and corruption across the world from Afghanistan to West Africa and Colombia adds an extra urgency to the need for a meaningful debate around treaty reform. A broad coalition of reform minded countries will be calling for such changes over the coming years and the new ten year strategy currently being rubber stamped in Vienna is likely to be the last to demand such rigid adherence to absolute prohibition.”
Additional note

Mr. Costa, director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) admitted yesterday that:
" drug control has an image problem: too much drug-related crime; too many people in prisons, and too few in health services; too few resources for prevention treatment, and rehabilitation; too much eradication of drug crop, and not enough eradication of poverty .”
Steve Rolles suggested that:
“This is not an image problem, this highlights the UNODC's problem of dealing with reality.”


Steve Rolles, Information Officer for Transform (Mobile contact: 07980 213 943) will be attending the UN Commission for Narcotic Drugs in Vienna (returning to the UK evening of the 13.03.08).

or Danny Kushlick, Transform Director 07970 174747

Notes to editors
  • Transform Drug Policy Foundation has UN ECOSOC special consultative status, and is attending the CND as an accredited NGO.

In 2002 the UK Home Affairs Select Committee Report ( THE GOVERNMENT'S DRUGS POLICY: IS IT WORKING? ) made the following recommendation:
‘We recommend that the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma.' (paragraph 267)
David Cameron MP was a member of the Committee and supported this recommendation.

Independent reports and news updates on the CND will be posted daily on the:

Transform Drug Policy Foundation Blog

TNI drugs and democracy blog

The International Harm Reduction Association HR2 blog

For extensive background, reports and documentation on the current UN drug strategy review see:

The TNI United Nations drug control review website

International Drug Policy Consortium

Government defeated on prostitution drug rehab amendments

Planned amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that would have introduced a programme of ‘compulsory rehab’ for street prostitutes have been dropped in order to get the bill passed quickly. It would have meant that street prostitutes that are regularly caught would be forced into 'treatment'. If they missed three sessions they could be arrested and held for 72 hours before being brought before court.

Whilst this was largely a political move in order to get the bill through without delay (and apparently prevent prison officers from going on strike in the summer), credit must go to the English Collection of Prostitutes and others who campaigned against the offending clause.

For a detailed explanation of the pros and cons of the bill see The Safety First coalition.

Transform was also a supporter of the campaign because compulsory 'treatment' has a very poor efficacy record and the concept of coercion is offensive to the concept of 'treatment' as understood by medical practitioners. The inverted comas are appropriate; when it is coerced, then according the BMA you shouldn't call it 'treatment', which is by definition agreed between patient and doctor and not the result of coercion.

What would help these vulnerable women is first and foremost is an end to the criminalisation of their work and, euqally importantly the appropriate legal regulation and controlled availability (either on prescription or at affordable prices) of the drugs to which many, indeed most, are dependent.

Improved support from other agencies outside the criminal justice system would be far more helpful than new legislation. The example of the way Ipswich has dealt with its street prostitutes since the Steve Wright murders in 2006 shows this to be a much more viable way to help get women out of prostitution. After five women were killed by Steve Wright, a multi-agency group including police, drug workers and community support staff was given money in order to get the sex workers off the street (BBC report, Guardian report)

The Ipswich partnership produced a draft strategy aimed at helping such women.

click to read pdf

It acknowledges that any attempt to get the sex workers into treatment for drug use should not be coercive. It has been claimed that of the estimated 30 or so women who were working at the time of the murders, only two are still on the streets. Of the 30, 16 are in daily communication with drugs workers and seven more are in less regular contact (see here). Low threshold availability of treatment, including maintenance prescribing where appropriate, is the most effective way of bringing these vulnerable women into contact with services.

What has been highlighted in the debate surrounding both the Ipswich murders and the Criminal Justice Bill is something that Transform and others have been saying for a long time - the prohibition of drugs is inextricably linked to prostitution. Prohibition dramatically inflates drug prices (by several 1000%), meaning that many low income drug users turn to acquisitive property crime, low level fraud or prostitution in order to fund their habits. Most street sex workers turn to prostitution in order to raise money to buy drugs (the Home Office estimates 75-95%). Street prostitution is rarely a career choice.

Brian Tobin, director of Iceni, the small drugs charity that has spearheaded the project dealing with all the sex workers in Ipswich, describes the set of circumstances in the town as "pretty unique". He acknowledges that the killings themselves - one sixth of the town's prostitutes were murdered - were critical in persuading the women and the relevant agencies to work together.

However he goes on to say that, “Our hardest part is yet to come. Now we have got to sustain this. We are now getting to the root of the problem, which was hidden by drugs.”

He argues that such programmes could be replicated elsewhere but they need a great deal of resources and effort in order to succeed. Further criminalisation of these women – such as was called for in the CJB - is not going to help them get off the streets and improve their lives.

The Ipswich murders and the drugs debate (Transform blog at the time of the Ipswich murders)

When all else fails: blame Amy Winehouse

This weekend saw various high profile figures, including Maria Antonio Costa, executive director of the UNODC and the Prime Minister,Gordon Brown jump on the condemn drug using celebrities bus, Costa going beyond simple condemnation to directly linking celebrity cocaine use to state collapse in Africa.

Gordon Brown, responded to question from another MP in reference to celebrity cocaine culture in the media, specifically asked him to agree that 'there's nothing glamorous about drug use'. he responded:

"I have to agree with him that it is very important when there are celebrities and role models for young people that they send out the proper messages. Some of our celebrities and role models are sending out the right message about the damage of drugs but I hope those people who take a casual attitude to drugs will think again and think about the message they are sending out to young people in our country."

It seems extremely unlikely that many potential role models are interested in Brown's view on their personal lives, especially the ones (most of them) who do not choose to be 'role models', a title that is invariably imposed on them by others (Kate Moss, is after all a clothes model first and foremost). More significant is the fact that it is the media obsession with celebrity drug use, rather than the celebrities themselves, that puts it so relentlessly in the public eye. Maybe Brown should have words with some newspaper editors - they might even pay attention.

Costa makes a more serious accusation in Sunday's Observer, that celebrities - he names Amy Winehouse specifically - are encouraging drug use, the illegal market for which is destroying West Africa, amongst other places ('Every line of cocaine means a little part of Africa dies'). He seems to confuse several things here.

Firstly a clear causal link between celebrity drug use and increased use amongst the general population is not something he nor the UN's INCB can produce any evidence or research to support. The variables that determine levels of use are poorly researched, but clearly involve a complex interplay of cultural, social and economic forces. The key motivation is pleasure (or escape) and nothing Brown or Costa say will change the human desire for that.

The suggestion that coming down more heavily on Winehouse etc. would have any impact on overall use, or the UK's £7 billion illicit drug trade is ridiculous. Most celebrity drug use is reported in the media only when it gets messy (Winehouse, Doherty etc.) which is in reality not a good advert for drug use, arguably being the exact opposite. Again, it is the tabloid media who are responsible for pushing this drug use into the limelight (some would argue contributing to it) not the users themselves. Remember that Kate Moss who is also regularly name checked by Costa (see this earlier blog on when Costa attacked Britney Spears and Moss) was very discreet about her drug use which only became public following a hidden camera sting on her by a British tabloid. She has not spoken of it before or since.

The link Costa makes between illicit drug use and the chaotic problems in West Africa and elsewhere is of course correct, but the obvious needs to be pointed out: these are problems solely due to the enforcement oriented system of global drug prohibition that he personally oversees.

Antonio Maria Costa

To illustrate the point witness the 100% legal production of both cocaine and heroin taking place within the UN legal system for the medical market (whilst cocaine production is relatively tiny, licit opiates represent 50% of global opium production). The production, transit and supply of these drugs is not profiting organised crime, not undermining and corrupting governments or small African states or anywhere else, and is not involved with any 'trails of blood', misery, or death.

Amy Winehouse: It's all her fault

Of course under the current system of global prohibition, Costa is right, ethical consumers (issues of the law criminalising their use aside) should not consume or buy certain illicit drugs. But the appeals that Costa and others make to ethical consuming drug users (whether it be on development, human rights, conflict or environmental grounds) will not have anything more than the tiniest dent in demand. At best. And he surely knows this.

Like the pointless distracting comments about celebrities this feels like thrashing around desperately for new targets, trying to be seen to be 'doing something' in the face of the shocking failure of the UN drug control efforts more broadly. The problems he flags up are the problems of prohibition, and unlike Amy Winehouse, Costa is in a distinctly better a position to do something about them. Amy Winehouse may need help to sort her problems out, but unlike Costa she is at least past the denial stage.

On a slightly more positive note:

In response to concerted campaigning by various NGOs (notably IHRA, Human Rights Watch and the IDPC) Costa has made some positive noises at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs today about drug enforcement, human rights, the death penalty, and even the futility of eradication and prison responses and the need to deal with the underlying causes of problematic use. (See IHRA blog for more info on Costa's statement and links to relevant documents)

Its not clear at this stage where it will all lead or if it is the first signs of progress and some more constructive engagement with civil society, but lets welcome progress where it happens, even if its small steps, and congratulate the NGOs involved.

Right, now I'm off to the CND in Vienna (now we have special consultative status I can actually go to the meetings), so I should have a better idea of what really happening by the end of the week. I will post reports on the blog as the meetings unfold......

Friday, March 07, 2008

Peru and Bolivia revolt against the INCB

From the new TNI blog:

Cocaleros in Bolivia threathen to occupy the installations of the United Nations in the country as well as those of Coca Cola in El Alto in protest against the decision by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) to "abolish or prohibit coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea," according to the newspaper La Razón.

The president of the Asociación Departamental de Productores de Coca (Adepcoca), Hernán Justo, said the occupation of UN buildings was because the INCBs "intent to demonise" coca and the "abuse of coca" by Coca Cola. Cocaleros in the Chapare announced a march to protest the INCB recommendations.

Government representatives from Peru and Bolivia also dismissed the INCB report. They called it disrespectful of indigenous traditions. Peruvian Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde said: "One of the principles of humanitarian law is the respect of traditional customs, recognized by the national constitution," according to Associated Press.

Bolivia’s minister of the Interior, Alfredo Rada, called the report "unilateral and colonialist," and announced that Bolivia would defend the "cultural value" of the coca leaf and the coercion to prohibit traditional consumption before the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) next week.

Bolivia’s vice-minister of Foreign Affairs, Hugo Fernández, said the request of the INCB is the result of "ignorance" and an "archaic, anachronistic and obsolete mentality." He said the tradition of acullicu, the chewing of coca leaves, "will not be eliminated."

"In Bolivia, there will never be a policy of zero coca," said Hilder Sejas, spokesman for the vice ministry of social defense. "To do so would walk over the rights of millions of Bolivians for whom coca is a symbol of our cultural identity."

Last year, President Evo Morales announced in the United Nations General Assembly he would hold a series of meetings with UN officials to elaborate on his government's position on this issue. "This is coca," he said, taking a leaf from his jacket pocket and displaying it to the world leaders who packed the General Assembly hall. "This coca leaf represents Andean culture, it is a coca leaf that represents the environment and the hope of our peoples," Morales said.

The reactions confirm the condemnation by TNI of the INCB yesterday. The INCBs report seems to have backfired. Hopefully, this will finally lead to the decision to unschedule the coca leaf from the 1961 Single Convention. A decision that is long overdue.

Tom Blickman, TNI
6 March 2008

for detailed background visit

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Times: Get your cocaine from Superdrug

The opinion piece by Camilla Cavendish copied below appears in today's Times that usefully airs some strong arguments (if you agree or disagree you can add comments below, on the Times website - most are currently supportive). Transform also gets a name check*.
For a more detailed discussion on how legal regulation of drugs might work see here or here.

Get your cocaine from Superdrug

The celebrity glamorisation of drugs is irrelevant. There would be huge benefits from legalisation

The Times, March 6th, Camilla Cavendish

The UN officials who condemned Britain's celebrity culture for glamorising cocaine yesterday presumably haven't watched the footage of Amy Winehouse in sandals, with injection marks between her toes. If these teetotal bureaucrats think that the singer's fans will follow her on to crack, they are far more naive than the British public. For people under 40, drugs are ubiquitous. Most of my generation thinks of cocaine much as our parents thought of single malt. Kate Moss, if the rumours were true, was just joining in with the mainstream. Whereas Amy has clearly gone beyond - as the thousands of bets on seem to testify.

The most powerful role models are dealers, not celebrities. All over Britain, men in gold jewellery flaunt their wealth at school gates. Teachers tell me how hard it is to convince teenagers to get NVQs, when they can have a career with Drugs Inc and aspire to make £1,000 a day. Drugs Inc is one of the most profitable, successful businesses of all time. The UN values it at about $330 billion, almost as big as the defence industry. The criminals who run Drugs Inc shift staggering amounts of stock with no conventional advertising. They offer free samples to children and discounts for trading up to harder substances. They motivate their sales force with threats.

As a result, drugs are now the second-largest revenue earner for organised crime. The profit margins, according to the Downing Street Strategy Unit, are higher than those on luxury goods. Drugs Inc pays no tax. And with so much money at stake, its barons are vicious. Violence has soared as rival gangs battle for a share of the profits.

Two weeks ago Sunday Essiet became the fifth teenager to be murdered in London this year (and we're only two months in). The little Nigerian boy was “kicked like a football” in Plumstead, the victim of what residents claimed was a drug turf war between white and Somali groups. A few months earlier a 13-year-old girl had been knifed in her playground in mid-afternoon by rivals of her friend, an 18-year-old drug dealer. These are children. What better demonstration is there that the “war on drugs” has failed?

We won't end this violence by jailing celebrities or middle-class users. The only way to take back our streets is to wrest back control of the drugs from the criminals, by legalising and regulating their trade.

Imagine if you could buy coke from Boots. Or the aptly named Superdrug. That would drain the glamour from it more effectively than making a martyr of Kate Moss. I don't imagine her lovely features would adorn state-regulated packets of white powder, hanging next to the corn plasters. Yes, legalisation would make drugs cheaper, in order to undercut the dealers. Yes, usage might increase. But perhaps not much, because it is already widespread. A third of 16 to 24-year-olds routinely admit to having tried drugs, despite knowing that they are admitting to a crime.

The benefits of legalisation could be enormous. Overcrowded prisons would be relieved of people needing treatment rather than punishment (about 15 per cent of prisoners are in for possession or supply). Addicts would not be forced into associating with criminals. Children could be safe in Britain's playgrounds again.

Something similar happened in 1933, when America repealed Prohibition. The ban on alcohol had corrupted the police, increased the number of hard drinkers and created a whole new criminal class of bootleg suppliers. Britain's equivalent of Prohibition was the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971. Up to that time we had treated addiction as an illness, heroin addicts got their fix on prescription, and there were only 5,000 problematic drug users, according to Transform, the drug policy group. Thirty years on there are 280,000. That is a direct result of Drugs Inc, which makes more money from pushing harder substances. Our laws have created crack, a concentrated form of cocaine, and skunk, a concentrated form of cannabis, both of which are devastating.

The prohibitionists fail to distinguish between recreational and problem users. The vast majority of people stick to recreational use of cocaine, Ecstasy and substances that even the Strategy Unit has classified as low-risk. There are tragic cases, of course, but they are often caused by impure supplies. Cocaine and Ecstasy can be cut with other substances. Glass has recently been found in cannabis - another nasty aspect of Drugs Inc that would disappear if the market went to Boots.

Annual deaths from drug use (about 2,000) are still minuscule compared with those related to alcohol and tobacco (about 160,000). These figures are not precise, because some people abuse all three. But it is arguable that the violence associated with the illegal drugs trade does more harm than the drugs themselves.

The irony is that it is the UN and its drug conventions that are the biggest barrier to progress. Its ideological war on drugs makes it almost impossible for countries to be pragmatic. It has demanded that Portugal, which decriminalised possession, should recant. Yet Portugal has accepted the reality that in GDP terms, it is dwarfed by Drugs Inc. As a result, it has seen crime fall.

The only way to make our streets safe is to wipe Drugs Inc off the map. The only way to do that is to legalise the trade. That would also redraw the map, because drug lords from Colombia to Afghanistan would no longer find the trade so lucrative. The UN's blindness to this is unforgivable: even worse than its failure to understand that Amy Winehouse, despite her beautiful voice, is the perfect health warning.


*Just to be pedantic, the stat quoted as from us can be a bit misleading. As outlined in the TDPF website intro page: "In 1970 there were estimated to be between 5,000 and 15,000 problematic drug users in the UK. There are now between 280,000 and 500,000". Obviously these things are difficult to measure and different sampling techniques and misuse criteria throw up different results. It should also specify we are talking about problematic users of illegal drugs. The stats quoted by Transform (also quoted in our 'Options for Control' publication, p.9) are based on various estimates and papers which review the different methodologies: (including Frischer M, et al ‘A comparison of different methods for estimating the prevalence of problematic drug misuse in Great Britain.’ Addiction. 2001 Oct;96(10):1465-76.). The Home Office has used the 280,000 figure - probably a conservative figure for 2008. The 5000 figure for 1970 refers to the number of registered addicts although this is thought to be in the region of one third of the total population - hence the 5-15k range, although this only apples to heroin use. It's an unfortunately imprecise science, complicated by the arrival of new patterns of problematic use, notably crack, superimposed on the earlier heroin using numbers. But the point remains the same - use has increased dramatically, by over 1000% since 1971 however you measure it. And thats not a great result for a policy intended to reduce and ultimately eliminate use.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

INCB prioritise celebrity tat over human rights abuses and mass murder

I have just done a brief interview with Channel 4 lunchtime news, which, like the rest of the UK media, is covering the INCB's comments on celebrity drug use. I tried to push some of what I saw as more pressing issues but the editorial decision had been made. Quite aside from the fact that this issue (celebrity punishment) is not even remotely the remit of INCB (and they have no evidence that celebrities are treated any differently to anyone else - I actually asked the INCB's Hamed Ghodse at the studio), there are evidently far more important issues for the INCB to be concerned with.

This excellent Aljazeera report, posted on YouTube, covers Thailand's 2004 drug crackdown in which over 2000 people were executed by police, and the threatened revival of this murderous policy by the new PM, Samak Sundarave.

PM: We must do... we have a war on drug.
Q: Are you worried about the innocent victims?
PM: ...what do you mean by innocent victim?

The evidence of these horrors is not disputed, but the INCB, despite some welcome rhetoric about human rights and proportionality in the new report, has notably remained almost completely silent on this outrage over the past 4 years, making any talk of human rights ring hollow. In its press pack for the new annual report Thailand is only mentioned once, and that is a passing reference to cannabis cultivation. Celebrity drug use gets top billing in the opening proportionality discussion and press releases and the death penalty is not mentioned. Unsurprisingly, media headlines have been dominated by this completely irrelevant non-story, more the realm of Heat magazine than the UN.

So Kate Moss or 1000s of extra-judical police murders. Which do you think is more important?


Drugscope press release response to the INCB report "UN drug experts must condemn human rights abuses"

IDPC response to the INCB report

IHRA blog on the INCB report "HIV? Human rights abuses? ...the INCB has more pressing concerns"

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

INCB annual report: even by their standards, this one's a shocker

Below is copied the press release from the Transnational Institute concerning the latest annual report from the International Narcotics Control Board, the quasi-judicial body that oversees state adherence to the UN drug conventions. The INCB has been on the receiving end of sustained NGO criticism for its secrecy, politicisation, and its overzealous approach to some policy areas outside of its remit (objections to established harm reduction initiatives), whilst ignoring key issues that are very much within its remit (notably adherence to human rights in drug enforcement). The TNI have taken issue with the INCB's latest extraordinary call for all coca leaf production to to be prohibited and its use, including indigenous and traditional, to be abolished.

The INCB's annual report is available from the INCB site here

A series of critical reports on the troubling machinations of this anomalous UN entity have been published recently (see below), and for further detailed information on the INCB, and the current UN drug strategy review process see the excellent new TNI website

Abolishing Coca Leaf Consumption?

The INCB needs to perform a reality check

The Transnational Institute condemns the decision by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) in their 2007 annual report released today, which calls on countries to ‘abolish or prohibit coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of coca tea’. (1)

According to Pien Metaal, researcher specialising in coca issues at the Transnational Institute:

“The Board is displaying both arrogance and blindness by demanding that countries impose criminal sanctions on distribution and possession for traditional uses of the coca leaf, which is a key feature of Andean-Amazon indigenous cultures. Isn’t it time for this UN treaty body to get in touch with reality and show some more cultural sensitivity?”

Coca chewing and drinking of coca tea is carried out daily by millions of people in the Andes as well as considered sacred within indigenous cultures. The INCB’s statement therefore clearly puts it at odds with the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights approved last year, which promises to uphold and protect indigenous cultural practices.(2)

It also contradicts the 1988 UN drugs convention which recognized traditional uses (3) as well as statements within the current 2007 INCB report which talk about “respect for national sovereignty, for the various constitutional and other fundamental principles of domestic law – practice, judgments and procedures –and for the rich diversity of peoples, cultures, customs and values.” (4)

TNI also condemns the demand within the INCB report that countries should “establish as a criminal offence, when committed intentionally, the possession and purchase of coca leaf for personal consumption”,(5) which if it were implemented would mean the prosecution of several million people in the Andean-Amazon region. It targets not just consumers but also peasants who grow coca: “Governments should establish as criminal offences under its domestic law, when committed intentionally, the cultivation of coca bush for the purpose of the production of narcotic drugs contrary to the provisions of the 1961 Convention”(6), reflecting all uses of the coca leaf.

“Given that the Board in the same report talks about proportionality in sentencing, the Board’s position makes no sense. It would criminalise entire peoples for a popular tradition and custom that has no harm and is even beneficial,” says Pien Metaal.

Earlier reports by the INCB have pointed to the inconsistencies between traditional uses of the coca leaf and the 1961 Single Convention on drugs (which included the coca leaf as “narcotic drug”), but no state has made serious efforts to abolish a habit that has no risk to public health.(7) Moreover, beneficial uses of the plant have growing markets worldwide.

It is understood that the Board was responding to Bolivia’s political decision to give the coca leaf a status as a valuable natural resource, reflected in the new proposed Constitutional text and in its national policy that allows a limited number of farmers to grow a small plot of coca for this traditional use.

According to Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the TNI drugs programme:

“The inclusion of the coca leaf in Schedule I of narcotic drugs of the 1961 Convention was based on an ECOSOC study done back in 1950, inspired by colonial and racist sentiments rather than science. (8) It is time the Board asks the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the World Health Organisation for guidance on this matter instead of casting its own narrow-minded judgment and retreating to the obsolete thinking of the 1961 Convention.”

Please contact:

Drugs & Democracy Programme (TNI) Tel +31-20-6626608
Pien Metaal +31640798808 or
Martin Jelsma +31655715893
See also TNI’s website launched to coincide with the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND)’s meeting in Vienna to review UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs for more background.

1 “The Board calls on the Governments of Bolivia and Peru to consider amending their national legislation so as to abolish or prohibit activities that are contrary to the 1961 Convention, such as coca leaf chewing and the manufacture of mate de coca (coca tea).” INCB annual report 2007, para 217

2 A/61/L.67, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly on September 13, 2007

3 1988 Convention, article 14, paragraph 2

4 Foreword, INCB report 2007

5 Idem, paragraph 219

6 Idem, paragraph 219


8 The 1950 ECOSOC Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf claimed that the habit of chewing could be held responsible for malnutrition and immoral behaviour of the ‘Andean man’, while reducing his productive capacity. Report of the findings of the Commission of Enquiry of the Coca Leaf, ECOSOC 1950, now available here

TNI blog commentary on the new INCB report from Martin Jelsma:

INCB & Coca

A colonial attitude unworthy for a UN agency

When the INCB Annual Report for 2007 –under embargo until March 5- started to circulate about a month ago, I was in complete shock after reading the worst ever paragraphs on coca written in UN history for several decades. The position taken by the Board now can be characterized by no more talk about the need to solve 'long-standing ambiguities in the conventions', not a shred of sympathy anymore for traditional customs or rights of indigenous peoples, no trace of cultural sensitivity at all, an all-out attack against coca chewing, drinking of coca tea or any other uses of coca in its natural form in the Andean region and the northern parts of Argentina and Chile. We were warned last year in their report already about this direction of INCB thinking, but still I am outraged by this year’s call to “the Governments of Bolivia and Peru to initiate action without delay with a view to eliminating uses of coca leaf, including coca leaf chewing” and that all countries “should establish as a criminal offence, when committed intentionally, the possession and purchase of coca leaf for personal consumption”.

In what world do these people live in, I wonder. True, the 1961 Single Convention did oblige countries to abolish coca leaf chewing within 25 years. That period has long past and formally all countries who signed that –including Bolivia- are still legally bound by that article. Bolivia and Peru tried to correct that when negotiating the 1988 Convention, which stipulates that drug control measures “should take due account of traditional licit use, where there is historic evidence of such use”. But unfortunately the US at the same negotiations ensured that another article said that the 1988 convention “should not derogate from any obligations under the previous drug control treaties”. Since then, impasse and contradiction.

The INCB has pointed out this contradiction several times (most clearly in its 1994 supplement to their Annual Report) and requested the CND to bring clarity and give policy guidance. Why then do they now take a high-ground position of judge, jury and executioner and arrogantly instruct the world to go back to the 1961 coca abolition dogma, which was based on a colonial and racist ‘study’ published in 1950? I’ve tried to follow dynamics within the Board over the past decade, not an easy task because it operates under a cloud of secrecy totally out-of-line with any accepted UN standards about transparency and accountability. But still, it leaves me puzzled.

Is this the influence of Camilo Uribe Granje, the new Colombian INCB member, previously known for his attempts –paid by the US embassy in Bogota- to deny any harmful impacts of the chemical spraying campaign against coca fields? Or is it due to INCB President Emafo’s influence, a true dinasaur of zero tolerance who also maintains that needle exchange or harm reduction is against the UN drug control conventions, on a moment UNAIDS and WHO declare such interventions to be the only effective answer to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia and Eastern Europe? Or is it an attempt by the Board to show to the US that they are still keeping a hard line on some issues to compensate for the softer line they take in this report on harm reduction and 'proportionality of criminal sanctions'? That could be a point, because there are several positive things to say about this year’s INCB report, positions that probably will not please the current Bush administration. However, even the US has stopped condemning traditional coca uses in the Andes and you can drink coca tea when visiting the US embassy in La Paz.

There must have been disagreement within the INCB on this issue, because not all the members are as ignorant and out-of-touch with reality to support such an extremist position. We may never know, because the Board’s policy is to not mention internal disagreements or minority positions. It is very worrying that the wording on coca in this year’s report apparently had a majority support within the Board and those members who agreed to it should feel ashamed, especially after the recent adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that acknowledges fully the right to the people concerned to continue to chew coca or drink coca tea. Including the WHO has found that coca consumed in its natural form is beneficial. What is the INCB thinking to achieve with this retreat to the obsolete thinking of the 1961 Convention? It merely underlines the need to reform the way the Board is operating. If a majority of the Board does not come to its senses and corrects this mistake, they will only further dig their own grave and confirm their unworthiness to be a UN agency.

Martin Jelsma, TNI

5 March 2008

Four critical reports on the INCB

1. The International Narcotics Control Board: Current Tensions and Options for Reform

IDPC Briefing Paper 7, February 2008

This briefing paper brings together material and analysis from a number of recent reports that raise questions about the role and functioning of the INCB. The IDPC analysis is that the Board mixes a rigid and overzealous approach to some aspects of its mandate, while showing a selective reticence in others. These inconsistencies do not arise automatically from the structure or role of the Board, but from the operational and policy decisions of its officers and members.

Beginning with a discussion of its formal powers and self-proclaimed "unique" position in international relations, this IDPC report explores the tensions surrounding various aspects of the current operation of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB or Board). These tensions are analysed in light of the INCB’s interpretation of the UN drug control conventions and its mandate as laid out within them. It is argued here that in a number of contexts the Board appears prepared to act beyond the limitations which the treaties place upon it and engage in what can be termed mission creep. The report also explores other contexts within which the INCB appears reluctant to meet its mandated obligations and displays what can be described as selective reticence. The report contends that the areas of concern surrounding these mandate issues are further reinforced and complicated by the INCB’s culture of secrecy and the lack of transparency which characterizes all its work. It concludes by outlining "A Way Forward" in reviewing the way the INCB operates: a vital and timely endeavour that should be undertaken during the UN-level process to assess the 1998 UNGASS on drugs and the subsequent period of global reflection leading up to a high-level meeting in 2009 where markers for future UN drug control efforts can be adopted.

Download the Briefing Paper (pdf)


2. ‘Unique in International Relations’? A Comparison of the International Narcotics Control Board and the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies, by Damon Barrett, International Harm Reduction Association, February 2008
Download the full report in PDF

a new report released in February 2008 by the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), the INCB comes in for some heavy criticism for being overly secretive, closed to external dialogue with civil society, and out of kilter with similar agencies in other UN programmes. IHRA also debunks the INCB’s defence that it is ‘unique in international relations’.

3. 'Closed to Reason: the International Narcotic Control Board and HIV / AIDS', by Joanne Csete and Daniel Wolfe, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and International Harm Reduction Development Program (IHRD) of the Open Society Institute, February 2007

A report published in March 2007 by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the Open Society Institute Public Health Program, strongly criticises the INCB. It accuses the Board of becoming 'an obstacle to effective programs to prevent and treat HIV and chemical dependence'. “Nearly one in three HIV infections outside Africa is among people who inject drugs. The International Narcotics Control Board could and should be playing a key role in stopping this injection-driven HIV epidemic — but it’s not,” said Joanne Csete, Executive Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and co-author of the report.

Download the full report in Pdf


4. The INCB and the un-scheduling of the coca leaf
TNI Drug Policy Briefing No. 21, March 2007

The 2006 International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) report emitted a clear signal to the governments of Bolivia, Peru and Argentina that growing and using coca leaf is in conflict with international treaties, particularly the 1961 Single Convention. The INCB, rather than making harsh judgements based on a selective choice of outdated treaty articles, should use its mandate more constructively and help draw attention to the inherent contradictions in the current treaty system with regard to how plants, plant-based raw materials and traditional uses are treated.

Download the briefing paper (pdf)

Further reading on coca:

From Soft drink to Hard Drug; A Snapshop History of Coca, Cocaine and Crack
Transform briefing 2005

Coca Yes, Cocaine No? Legal Options for the Coca Leaf
TNI Drugs & Conflict Debate Paper 13
May 2006

For more see the TNI publications page here