UN anti-drug chief sounds alarm on possible ‘health disaster’ in developing world

A drug-addict in Kabul

8 March 2010 – Failure to harness drugs could unleash a “health disaster” in the developing world, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned today, underscoring that poor nations lack the necessary treatment facilities and law enforcement capacities to rein in narcotics.

“This seems to have been forgotten by people in rich countries calling for a loosening of drug controls,” Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa told the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), which kicked off its 53rd session in Vienna today.

The CND is the UN’s central policy-making body in drug-related matters, allowing Member States to analyze the global drug situation and monitor the implementation of the three global drug control pacts, including the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances.

In his address today, Mr. Costa asked, “why condemn the Third World, already ravaged by so many tragedies, to the neo-colonialism of drug dependence?”

He noted that East Africa is witnessing increased heroin use, while cocaine is one the rise in West Africa and synthetic drugs in the Middle East and South-East Asia.

Health is paramount in drug control, the UNODC chief said. While drug addition is a treatable condition, inequality within and among nations marginalizes the poor who cannot access treatment.

“While rich addicts go to posh clinics, poor addicts are being pushed into the gutters or to jail,” he emphasized.

His agency is working with the UN World Health Organization (WHO) to achieve the goal of universal access to drug treatment and with the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) to halt the spread of the disease through injection drug use.

“We must not only stop the harm caused by drugs. Let’s unleash the capacity of drugs to do good,” Mr. Costa said, reminding participants at the gathering that the preamble of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs recognizes that “the medical use of narcotic drugs continues to be indispensable for the relief of pain and suffering.”

He also highlighted the need to bolster human rights in the fight against drugs, pointing out that millions of people – including children – are sent to jail, not to treatment facilities, when caught taking drugs.

“In some countries, drug treatment amounts to cruel, degrading punishment – the equivalent of torture,” Mr. Costa said, adding that some are even sentenced to death for drug-related offenses.

“As human beings, as well as members of the community of civilized nations, we have a shared responsibility to put an end to this,” he stressed. “People who use drugs, or are behind bars, have not lost their humanity or their human rights.”

The Executive Director also noted the growing security threat posed by drugs, with the Security Council having taken up the issue of trafficking in recent months. He said it is particularly important that vulnerable regions – including the Balkans, Central and West Asia and East and West Africa – receive stepped-up assistance in their security, justice and development sectors.

The UNODC, he said in his last address to the CND as its head, has made great strides in helping Member States “make drug policy more responsive to the needs of the most seriously affected along the whole chain of the drug industry, from poor farmers that cultivate it, to desperate addicts who consume it, as well as those caught in the crossfire.”

This session of the CND will wrap up on Friday.


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