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IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse

Q&A: Sustainable Development Key to Reducing Drug Use

Coralie Tripier interviews THOMAS PIETSCHMANN, drug expert at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 3 2012 (IPS) - “Drugs and crime threaten one of our most important goals – to ensure sustainable development around the world,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated on Jun. 26, during a General Assembly debate on drugs and crime  as a threat to development.

The same day – the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking – the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its annual World Drug Report, calling for a development-based approach to solving drug problems.

“Drugs continue to kill around 200,000 people a year, shattering families and bringing misery to thousands of other people, insecurity and the spread of HIV,” said Yury Fedotov, executive director of UNODC.

Thomas Pietschmann, drug expert at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Photo courtesy of Mr. Pietschmann

UNODC’s latest report shows that five percent of the world’s adult population are estimated to have used an illicit drug at least once in 2010.

In an interview with IPS correspondent Coralie Tripier, UNODC’s drug expert Thomas Pietschmann explained how sustainable development, moderate sanctions and enhanced security can be tools to combat drug use.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What is the link between sustainable development and the decrease in illicit drugs?

A: From all the studies that we have been carrying out, it is very clear that when you have sustainable development in a region, you also have a lesser production of illicit drugs.

A recent example of it is Thailand, where, over a period of twenty to thirty years, we completely eliminated opium cultivation by giving farmers real alternatives through investments.

Q: In order to further decrease the production of illicit drugs, are sanctions being increased?

A: Simply cutting and eradicating the fields does not solve the problem.

Eradication should only take place once farmers have already been given the chance to do alternative development. You should not start with eliminating the fields and then see farmers die because they have no steady income.

Eradication should be the last resort. Before that, you have to ensure that farmers have the opportunity to have a decent income out of another activity. You cannot increase sanctions when people are living at the margins.

Q: Is the UNODC setting different policies according to the countries?

A: Yes, and also according to the regions within these countries. For example, Afghanistan is very diverse. If you take eastern Afghanistan, the fields are very small, while in southern Afghanistan, the fields tend to be much bigger.

That’s why in the eastern part of the country, the solution must really be rural development – that is to say, going into services and basic manufacturing to ensure that farmers really have another input, because with such small lands it is pretty difficult to earn a decent income. It has to be a personalised approach.

Q: The UNODC is also stressing the importance of security in its fight against drugs. How are security and drug use related?

A: Security is a key point of the fight against illicit drugs.

In 2010 we carried out a survey, which showed that in the areas where security was low, 93 percent of the farmers produced opium, while in the areas where it was high, it was only around seven percent. You can see a massive discrepancy between those regions. There’s a definite correlation between security and production of illicit drugs.

Q: What is UNODC’s position on the medical use of marijuana?

A: Medical use of marijuana – if properly done – is and can be in line with the UNODC Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961.

But we know that in some states in the United States, so-called medical marijuana is often intended for recreational use.

There are some preconditions. First of all, the harvest of marijuana has to be bought by a national agency. This agency is then responsible for distributing it before the medical body prescribes it.

But in some cases, there is a complete misuse of medical marijuana.

Q: How do you see the situation of illicit drugs evolving in the near future?

A: We are quite optimistic about the evolution of this situation in developed countries.

A lot of factors play into this. For example, we have an aging population in those countries, and we know that drug use is high among young people, so it automatically leads to a decrease in drug consumption.

Unfortunately, we are less optimistic about developing countries, in which we see a push towards urbanisation, and urbanisation generally leads to higher levels of drug use. We see a clear shift away from developed to developing countries, and we are particularly concerned about Africa, where all the risk factors come together.

Africa is particularly vulnerable to increasing levels of drug use in the upcoming years.

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