Addressing global scourge of illicit drugs

March 11, 2013

Discussions about illicit drugs can often hinge on misunderstandings about terms. This confusion is glaring when words such as “decriminalization,” where drug possession is no longer criminalized, and “legalization,” 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’s population quadrupled.

The 1961 Single Convention was created to control the use of drugs for the protection of the “health and welfare of mankind.” Since its creation, it has emphasized health – 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’s 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’s 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’s 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







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The system really is workinf particularly well for one group of people, those that have made a career out of enforcing prohibition.

That would include the writer of this article.

For the rest of us? Not so much.

Posted by Urban_Guerilla | Report as abusive

The war against pot has made fortunes for many people, in selling gear and providing incarceration facilities. Besides, it locks up ‘those’ the others don’t like, but doesn’t use racism as a reason.

They are not about to give up the golden goose.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive

Those who become drug addicts are careless about themselves and lack self-respect. People should be free to be as stupid about themselves as they want yet society has an obligation to help them when needed.

I understand those who want to criminalize the addicted because this gives them a sense of control (or sense of superiority) over the addicted. The reality is that there will always be those who are not the smartest at, or most capable of, controlling their weaknesses in life. All that criminalization does in this case is create a lot of crime (as simple as that may sound), and a total waste of time and resources.

Addicts either self-destruct or eventually become self-aware and understand how they are the root of their own problems in life. Government’s role should be not to stigmatize people and throw up roadblocks but instead have programs that help them on their way toward adulthood.

Posted by keebo | Report as abusive

Drugs should be freely available to those who renounce all claims on society for health care. They should be free to kill themselves when adults.

Prohibition is based on the desire to give some people immense power and the moral excuse to intentionally commit atrocities against others and then feel “moral” about doing so. If it is not drugs, it will be some other excuse. Mankind loves tormenting the weak and then denying its own sadism. This is an exact description of conditions in the largest prison system on the planet in the USA.

There is no good excuse for outlawing “victimless” (a victim is a direct unwilling participant) crimes of pleasure.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

The skepticism of the preceding comments says it all. The author of this article lives in a fantasy world. As William Burroughs long ago observed, the fact is that a certain percent of the population wants to check out. Genetics? Alienated post-industrial man? Who knows, but the fact is that they want to check out. It won’t change. We have to accept that as the given, and decide how best to live with it. Wishful thinking and moralism won’t change that particular fact, or make it better for the rest of us, or them.

Posted by benfct | Report as abusive

Many people simply do not understand the intention of prohibiting and criminalization of drug.

The government, the society want to criminalize certain substances because its usage would lead to LONG TERM damages to the users (and/or other people around them).

That’s was the intention of the laws. Instead too many people, simply look at the superficial wording of the laws and take the absolutist’s approach while failing to understand the intention.

Of course, the mantra applies. It depends on the situation. In certain cases there will actually be long term (and short term) benefit depending on the person their needs, their resistance, their own physiology, their own situation while paper bureaucrat always want a simple one size fits all approach.

And each person (if smart enough plus scientific evidences easily accessible on the internet these days) would be the best to know if it is beneficial or harmful. Too bad, that will render the government people useless, won’t it? If the people are too smart, who needs so much government people (like this author) to interfere?

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

usagadfly says “Drugs should be freely available to those who renounce all claims on society for health care. They should be free to kill themselves when adults.” I would agree if that’s all that are killed as a result, but that’s not the case.

The people whose “business” it is to cater to the weak and who prosper off of their weakness are not those anyone wants in residence anywhere near. Their “clients” are not the brightest bulbs on the tree.

These “losers” in the game of life must frequently steal or otherwise break the law to get the money necessary to pay for their drugs. Beyond that, somehow “society” winds up for the bills associated with that chain of events. Others, often taxpayers, wind up housing and/or feeding them in some way because they can’t “provide” for themselves.

So the reasons “…for outlawing “victimless” (a victim is a direct unwilling participant) crimes of pleasure…” are as obvious and they are numerous.

benfct and trevorh make valid points. In all of this, there is ample room for the use of “common sense”. One size seldom “fits all”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

“These “losers” in the game of life must frequently steal or otherwise break the law to get the money necessary to pay for their drugs. ”

Ask yourself whether this is an example of harm caused by drugs, or an example of harm caused by their prohibition. Might it not be more constructive to meet the demand with a responsibly regulated supply, rather than abdicating responsibility to (criminal) entrepreneurs with little concern for their customers’, or society’s, well-being? We don’t allow bankers to operate without regulation. (Ha, ha!) Why should suppliers of illicit drugs, some of them nearly as dangerous as alcohol, enjoy such privilege?

Posted by MkkDdd | Report as abusive


It an example like any other. The person that does not have the money for something they need (or want enough) may go into debt or steal to acquire it. This is not a “choice” made by the “something”, but by the person.

The choice to go into debt to buy a new car is a normal and logical one to those that afford to make the necessary payments for the duration of the agreement. It is a poor one if there is the slightest doubt.

I don’t want, as a taxpayer, to assume the inseparable cost to government to directly “…meet the demand with a responsibly regulated supply…” of credit or cars. But there is merit in regulating the supply and price of “controlled substances” for registered addicts if only to divert present profits from sustaining criminal organizations that are growing in size, influence and efficiency at the expense of the greater society.

There must be some substantial “quality of life” down side for those on such programs, otherwise some would view them as lifetime tickets to Niverna at taxpayer expense (with some accuracy).

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease. It’s treatable. Perhaps not as successfully as one might like, but on a par with other chronic diseases that require substantial behavioral change, like diabetes and hypertension.

Unfortunately, many people still don’t believe addiction is a disease. That’s why science-based education is so important.

For a not-for-profit website that discusses the science of substance use and abuse in accessible English (how alcohol and drugs work in the brain; how addiction develops; why addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease; what parts of the brain malfunction as a result of substance abuse; how that malfunction skews decision-making and motivation, resulting in addict behaviors; why some get addicted while others don’t; how treatment works; how well treatment works; why relapse is common; what family and friends can do; etc.) please click on

Posted by SteveCastleman | Report as abusive

“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.”
I would suggest that drug users be treated neither as patients nor as criminals, but as citizens whose recreational drug preference is not alcohol. If they commit crimes, they are criminals. If they become addicted and seek help, they are patients. The vast majority of users of currently illicit drugs are simply citizens who enjoy the use of intoxicants other than alcohol. They are not addicts. They do not commit any crimes. Considering the short- and long-term effects of alcohol, these citizens may be wiser than the norm.

Posted by Buzzby | Report as abusive

—“The government-correctional industry wants drugs criminalized just so they can make money”

—“Drug users should be treated like patients not criminals”

and the best one…

—The vast majority of users of currently illicit drugs are simply citizens who happen to enjoy the use of intoxicants other than alcohol.

All very sweet and nice, but the bottom line is that many, if not most, humans are no match for highly addictive drugs. All the sweetness and light in the world can’t change that biological fact.

“Carrot & Stick” Approach
While it’s nice to have some “sweet carrots” in the policy mix (rehab, community service as a first sentence on a first conviction), drastically harder and larger “sticks” are needed for those who — let’s face it — aren’t really interested in stopping drug use and don’t care what costs they impose on society, since society is so happy to carry them as freeloaders. And most importantly, the death penalty for anyone selling drugs is the only thing that will make a dent in the worldwide illicit drug industry.

Posted by zy-yz | Report as abusive