Addressing global scourge of illicit drugs
Discussions about illicit drugs can often hinge on misunderstandings about terms. This confusion is glaring when words such as ‚Äúdecriminalization,‚ÄĚ where drug possession is no longer criminalized, and ‚Äúlegalization,‚ÄĚ legalizing the sale of drugs like heroin or cocaine, are used interchangeably.
There is also confusion about the effectiveness of the 1961, 1971 and 1988 international drug conventions, which regulate our global approach to drug control. Those who label the conventions as ineffective now talk about liberalizing drug laws and amending the regulations. But the system is working — especially when it comes to health.
The conventions have helped limit the threat of illicit drugs. Global opium production fell by roughly 80 percent over the last century, even as the earth‚Äôs population quadrupled.
The 1961 Single Convention was created to control the use of drugs for the protection of the ‚Äúhealth and welfare of mankind.‚ÄĚ Since its creation, it has emphasized health ‚Äď not just handcuffs and law enforcement.
For this focus to succeed, we must ensure that drug users are treated with respect, not marginalized or discriminated against. The conventions are flexible enough to offer evidence-based therapy to those who are addicted, as well as rehabilitation, education and social reintegration.
Health also means a commitment to humane treatment of drug dependence, including protection against HIV/AIDS. Ultimately, it means giving everyone, especially young people, the opportunity to live healthy and safe lives, free from illicit drugs and crime.
Everything I have mentioned is already being done under the existing drug conventions and through the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Challenges remain, of course. Nonetheless, the conventions are the best tools for confronting this threat.
There are countries, in Western Europe for example, that have pursued different approaches, based on their interpretation of the conventions. The prevailing trend among most countries is to apply science-based approaches. So the real issue is not to change the conventions, but to convince countries that drug users should be treated as patients and not criminals.
Around 230 million people, or 5 percent of the world’s adult population, used an illicit drug at least once in 2010, according to UNODC‚Äôs World Drug Report 2012. Problem drug users, mainly those dependent on heroin and cocaine, number about 27 million, roughly 0.6 per cent of the world adult population. That‚Äôs 1 in every 200 people.
The task is large. But our goal must be to offer assistance to every problem drug user and help them escape the gravitational pull of their addiction.
UNODC, and I, will continue to argue for this approach. But its success depends on the cooperation of the entire international community.
Every year, some 200,000 people die from illicit drugs. It is a global tragedy. We have the tools, the understanding and the commitment to confront this problem. Let‚Äôs work together to prevent any more deaths from illicit drug use.
PHOTO (Top):¬†An officer of the General Criminal Investigation Unit of the Basque regional police Ertzaintza shows heroin seized following the three-month surveillance Operation Outage in Bilbao April 12, 2012. Forty-nine kilos (110lbs) of heroin, cocaine, scales, laptops and cutting agents were found following the arrests of three women at the San Sebastian coach station and a man later detained at a shop in Bilbao. REUTERS/Vincent Wes
PHOTO (Insert): A soldier touches a poppy plant used to make heroin during an operation of destruction at Sierra de Culiacan in state of Sinaloa, December 8, 2011. REUTERS/Bernardo Montoya