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UNITED NATIONS: Debate on Progress in Combating Drug Abuse

Mehru Jaffer

VIENNA, Apr 11 2003 (IPS) - Government representatives from over 100 countries are locked in a passionate debate at the Vienna premises of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) over the continuing abuse of narcotic drugs by at least 185 million people around the world. And the number is said to be rising.

Today there is complete consensus amongst policy makers to free the world of drug abuse but the debate is over how to do it?

A special session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York promised in 1998 to reduce and eventually eliminate the supply and demand for illegal drugs within a decade. The Vienna meeting is important as a mid-term review of this pledge so that the target can actually be met by 2008.

Critics of the international drug control policy want reforms if better progress is to be seen in the following five years as the number of illicit drug consumers continues to rise.

UNODC director Antonio Costa, however, says that efforts to reduce the abuse of illicit drugs have shown signs of progress despite the rise in the consumption of cannabis. "These encouraging developments are mixed with alarm signals in relation to the type of drug and region. There is decline in the abuse of heroin and cocaine in some countries providing hope that greater achievements are possible," he says.

The most dangerous trend has emerged from Eastern Europe to the North Pacific in the spread of HIV/AIDS due to the abuse of drugs by injecting. The same problem of HIV/AIDS, although far more dramatic in Africa, is not directly linked to the injecting of drugs.

Although the World Health Organization (WHO) has called tobacco the most dangerous of all drugs, three UN Conventions allow its use along with alcohol while cocaine, cannabis, heroin and synthetic drugs like ecstacy are illegal.

This contradictory and strictly prohibitory policy of UNODC that has the staunch support of countries like the United States and Italy is under attack today by some other European member countries and Australia who seek a more harm reduction and no punishment resolution to the grave problem of drug abuse.

The on-going debate in Vienna will culminate in a ministerial level meeting on April 16 and 17 when member states will have to further agree on the best way to prevent the illicit manufacture, import, export, trafficking, distribution and diversion of narcotic drugs and pschotropic substances.

There may be a clash of views on how to put into practice the international drug control treaties but what is now increasingly accepted by governments around the world is that most non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are an essential link to dealing with drug abuse at the grassroots level.

A parallel Mini Forum organised by the NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs at Vienna’s UN offices on alternative methods in the treatment and rehabilitation of addicts was attended by Costa who returned to the official meeting only after he thanked the NGOs for sharing with his office their wealth of experience.

Gautam Babbar from the Demand Reduction Section of UNODC told IPS that it would be impossible for him to network with young people around the world without the close consultative cooperation of NGOs.

Babbar has participated in projects that use sports and performances like theatre, dance, music and puppetry in drug abuse prevention in different corners of the world.

Eva Tongue, vice chairman of the NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs, who has been advocating demand reduction of illicit drugs for at least two decades, is pleased at the increasing involvement of NGOs with UNODC programmes although she continues to ask for participation also at the level of decision making.

"Just a decade ago not even 10 percent of UNODC’s resources were used for projects that involve NGOs. Today the percentage is almost 33 percent," Tongue told IPS.

Tongue’s NGO will convene yet another forum parallel to the government meeting on how NGOs can further help UNODC in operational priorities when participants from the Salvation Army and the Dhaka Ahsania Mission, Bangladesh, amongst others will speak.

However these are NGOs that have little quarrel with the UN on policy matters. They are allowed to use the premises of the UN after being accorded consultative status by the UN Social and Economic Council.

The cantankerous and more critical contingent of NGOs have restricted their activities outside the UN premises. A programme for the Alternative Drug Summit in Vienna will culminate in a demonstration from the Vienna University in the heart of the city, across a bridge on the river Danube to the doorstep of the UN offices.

The three hour walk will be accompanied by theatre performances and leaflets on cannabis paper. One of the organisers of the march and numerous workshops on topics like Drugs and Racism is the International Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ICN).

The European participants are trying to get policy makers within their respective countries to use the Vienna summit to review and reform the legal basis of drug prohibition enforced by the UN Conventions on Drugs of 1961, 1971 and 1988.

In the opinion of NGOs asking for an alternative drug policy, the existing laws that prohibit the use of illicit drugs have caused more harm than the consumption of drugs. They believe that a totally drugs free society is an impossibility and policies should concentrate on reducing the harm that the production, trafficking and consumption of drugs causes individuals, communities and humanity.

The idea is to protect the rights of citizens instead of violating them under a more rational and realistic control mechanism. Both government officials and those at the UN swear that they are prepared to listen to the other point of view but whether they will do anything about it is something to be seen at the end of the summit.

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