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HEALTH: UN Firm Against Legalisation of Drugs

Mehru Jaffer

VIENNA, Apr 17 2003 (IPS) - A summit called by the United Nations has reaffirmed its opposition to any legalisation of drugs.

The ten-day meeting ended Thursday with a joint statement by ministers from 75 countries expressing concern over policies being proposed to legalise some drugs banned by the UN.

But a parallel summit by members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at the Austria Centre found UN policies too rigid and narrow. The parallel summit blamed UN policies and corrupt governments for the continuing spread of drug abuse.

"What the UN calls a consensus is in fact a deadlock," said Dr Vitalino Canas, former coordinator for the Portugese government’s drive against drugs at the NGO meeting.

In the face of this kind of split, the Vienna summit was a mid-term review of progress towards a goal set in the UN General Assembly in 1998 to make the world free of drugs by 2008. That goal seems far from realisation, although V.M. Costa from the UN office for Drugs Control told reporters he saw the glass as half full.

The official summit recognised that progress has been uneven and that drugs continue to remain a global challenge. The summit saw drugs as a serious threat to public health, safety and well being, particularly of children and youth. Drugs were recognised a hindrance in efforts to reduce poverty while they encourage greed for a more materialistic lifestyle, violence and crime.

The summit recognised the unique situation of Afghanistan and of the need to end illicit cultivation of opium, which is again on the increase after being controlled effectively by the earlier Taliban government.

One way of doing this is to reduce demand, the meeting declared. But delegates expressed grave concern over policies that seek to deal with drug abuse by supporting legalisation of some narcotic drugs. Delegates expressed particular worry over the rapid growth in use of stimulants like amphetamine.

Some of the drugs are new, but former Interpol officer Raymond Kendall told NGOs there was nothing new about the UN meeting. "It is like nothing has changed in all these decades at the UN," he told IPS. "Except perhaps the larger number of security guards now."

Kendall told the NGO meeting that he wanted neither legalisation of all drugs considered illicit today, nor ruthless criminalisation of those who could not live without drugs. He asked for a more benign and rational attitude towards both the use and abuse of drugs.

Martin Jelsma from the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute (TNI), a worldwide fellowship of scholar-activists supporting political and social change, said the mid-term review was disappointing. He said the absence of significant progress over the past five years has led to little self-reflection in the UN.

Demands to scrap the UN conventions against drug abuse have been dismissed as too radical, but governments are beginning to disagree over existing laws. As the U.S. pushes to suppress supply, some European governments have been moving towards policies that seek to reduce harm, and to reduce punishment.

France backs the U.S. but Britain has got itself into some trouble over its relatively liberal policy towards use of cannabis, considered an illicit drug by the UN. The Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal and Australia have also distanced themselves from the UN position. But they have seen now that the door to any liberalisation in the UN stands shut for at least another five years.

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