Drug policy groups decry fresh U.N. anti-drug strategy

LONDON (Reuters) - U.N. members are expected to sign a declaration this week extending for another 10 years a “war on drugs” policy critics say is flawed an only feeds organized crime, helps spread HIV and undermines governments.

A Polish soldier stands guard in front of a pile of burning illegal narcotics in Ghazni province November 25, 2008. REUTERS/Shir Ahmad

The U.N. drug strategy declaration, due to be signed in Vienna on Wednesday or Thursday, marks the culmination of a year of divisive talks among member states to try to agree a unified counter-narcotics policy for the next decade.

At the last convention in 1998, the slogan “A drug free world -- we can do it” launched a campaign to eradicate all narcotics, from cannabis to heroin, by using law enforcement to tackle producers, traffickers and end users globally.

Drug policy campaigners, social scientists and health experts argue that strategy has failed, with statistics showing that drug production, trafficking and use have all soared during the decade, while the cost of law enforcement, both financially and socially, has rocketed, with vast numbers imprisoned.

In the United States, where illegal drug use is highest, the government spends around $70 billion a year to combat drugs. But illegal drug use has risen steadily over the past decade and a fifth of the prison population is there for drug offences.

What’s more, drug policy campaigners say, a lack of focus on harm-reduction strategies, which involve needle-exchange programs for intravenous drug users, has fed the spread of HIV and other diseases, compounding the failure of the drugs war.

“The war on drugs has failed, but they’re going to commit themselves to it again,” said Genevieve Horwood, a British barrister and member of the International Drug Policy Consortium, which pushes for new drug policies.

“Even though there are member states who disagree with the declaration, it will be signed because there’s no other strategy they can all agree on.”


The Vienna declaration is being drafted under the auspices of the U.N. Office on Drugs Crime. The director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, acknowledges a lack of success in fighting drugs over the past decade, but puts that down more to unfocused law enforcement rather than bad anti-drug strategies.

“The crime and corruption associated with the drug trade are providing strong evidence to a vocal minority of pro-drug lobbyists to argue that the cure is worse than the disease,” he said in a commentary prepared for the Vienna conference.

“This would be an historical mistake, one which United Nations member states are not willing to make,” he said, arguing that drug control and crime prevention go hand-in-hand.

“Because drug trafficking enriches criminals, destroys communities and even threatens nations, it has to be dealt with urgently and forcefully. Policy change is required against crime, not in favor of drugs.”

The complexity of the drugs issue, which has implications for everything from health and social policy to law enforcement, organized crime, international relations and the environment, means no two countries tackle the problem in the same way.

While many countries in Europe and Latin America oppose wording in the Vienna declaration -- and have said so openly, arguing for the inclusion of harm-reduction strategies in the document -- they have failed to build a consensus.

That has left the United States and others that favor its crime-fighting, zero-tolerance approach to the war on drugs -- including India, China and Russia -- in the driver’s seat.

Those campaigning against the U.S.-led strategy fear another 10 years of the same approach will fuel the organized crime drawn to the estimated $200 billion a year illegal drug trade, increase the spread of HIV, and produce more narco-states like Guinea-Bissau, Afghanistan and, increasingly, Mexico.

“It is a tragic irony that the U.N., so often renowned for peacekeeping, is being used to fight a war that brings untold misery to some of the most marginalized people on earth,” said Danny Kushlick, head of Transform, a British drug policy group.

“More than 8,000 deaths in Mexico in recent years, the destabilization of Colombia and Afghanistan, continued corruption and instability in the Caribbean and West Africa are testament to the catastrophic impact of a drug control system based on global prohibition.”

Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna, editing by Ralph Boulton