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Forward Thinking On Drugs - A Review of UN Progress in Combatting the Global Drug Problem

UN Review 2003
Steering Group
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  • April represents the half way point of the UNs 10 year anti drugs programme.
  • The 1998 targets, set under the slogan of “A Drug Free World” (by 2008), are widely regarded as unrealistic.
  • The UN committed itself to assess the progress achieved and difficulties encountered in meeting the 1998 goals and targets at a special ministerial meeting in Vienna in April 2003.

What is “progress”? How is it measured?

  • One of the key problems the review has to confront is in the measurement of progress. Even though there has been some improvement in data collection and analysis, the monitoring mechanisms still lack clear indicators of progress and concentrate on projects implemented, to the exclusion of outcome indicators.
  • Evidence from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as recently as March 6, 2003 states that the mid-term review is likely to reveal that production, trafficking, and illicit use have, at best, stabilised at high levels.

Policy makers need to consider seriously whether to react to this reality by massively extending and tightening the systems of control, or by acknowledging that a certain level of illicit supply and use is inevitable, and concentrating on reducing the harmful consequences.

Our evidence shows that harm reduction approaches are effective. We believe countries should be free to learn from each other’s successful experience of such approaches (e.g., needle exchange, consumption rooms) without criticism from the UN organisation policing the conventions, the International Narcotics Control Board, (INCB).

Increasing numbers of countries have begun to implement, or seriously discuss tolerant drug policies that work within the legal framework of the global drug control regime. This flexibility needs to be explicitly recognised by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Board.

Key outcomes of the 2003 review of progress meeting we would like to see are:

• that the Ministerial Declaration from the meeting includes a clearer statement of both the adopted objectives and what would be considered “progress” in 2008;
• that a comprehensive review of the impact and effectiveness of the current drug control system be launched under the auspices of the UNODC;
• that individual member states be allowed to implement responsible harm reduction approaches without criticism from the international bodies (such as the INCB) and for the impact of these approaches to be subject to formal and independent evaluation.

The key targets set in 1998:

“eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008;

eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit manufacture, marketing and trafficking of psychotropic substances, including synthetic drugs, and the diversion of precursors [and]

achieving significant and measurable results in the field of demand reduction.”

The six areas on which governments are to report and assess progress:

  • Action Plan for the Implementation of the Declaration on the Guiding Principles of Drug Demand Reduction,
  • Action Plan for the International Cooperation on the Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops;
  • Alternative Development;
  • Measures to promote Judicial Cooperation;
  • Action Plan against Illicit Manufacture, Trafficking and Abuse of Amphetamine-type Stimulants (ATS) and their Precursors;
  • Countering Money-Laundering.

The Role of Forward Thinking on Drugs

Forward Thinking on Drugs was commissioned to bring together the evidence base to create a critical dialogue, and to give UN delegates to the April review meeting a clear and rigorous summary of the state of knowledge to date.

In commissioning this evidence the Steering Group has only one pre-determined position: that a transparent and honest review of mid-term progress towards
achievement of goals be held.

The evidence-based reviews cover three main areas:

  1. the mechanics and dynamics of relevant UN treaties and conventions;
  2. harm reduction approaches to drug use
  3. global trends in illicit drug production, trafficking and consumption through to today;

Some Key Points from Review 1:

UN Treaties and Conventions
[full paper]

There is clearly a mounting desire among some, particularly European, nations to pursue pragmatic strategies to address the illegal drug issue. The result is the development of increasing tension between many domestic policies and the strict interpretations of the Conventions held by the INCB and prohibition-oriented members within the CND. There are, however, a number of possible scenarios whereby the more liberal minded states may be able to increase policy space at the national level.

An option for limited change is to more actively pursue the quiet path that is currently being followed to varying degrees by many European States, including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany, and other countries such as Canada and Australia. These nations are interpreting the ambiguities within the Conventions in the light of their own needs. This occurs especially in relation to the depenalisation of possession of illicit drugs, the use of controlled drugs for medicinal reasons and also harm reduction measures.

The conventions have been effectively adopted by the EU as a whole and countries acceding to the EU must therefore sign them.

Some Key Findings from Review 2:

The Evidence Base for Harm Reduction Approaches to Drug Problems
[summary] [full paper]

The evidence base for harm reduction allows us to identify interventions that:

  • definitely work – such as methadone and needle/syringe programmes. Despite the recent statement by the President of the INCB that needle exchange programmes are 'contrary to the provisions of the conventions', research shows that they work: they are cost-effective in preventing and reducing the spread of HIV among injectors. These should be considered for adoption in regions where they are currently unavailable. Methadone – and other – replacement therapies reduce illicit drug use and crime and are cost-effective.
  • show promise in ways that are adapted to local settings e.g. heroin prescribing, drug consumption rooms (including “safer injecting rooms”) and pill testing. Despite the INCB’s reservations concerning heroin prescription, the evidence on its effectiveness is promising – and argues for cautious expansion and, all-importantly, careful evaluation. Similarly while the INCB maintains that they contravene the conventions, drug consumption (including ‘safe injecting’) rooms show promising signs of reducing overdose deaths and drug-related nuisance. They should be piloted and evaluated. Pill testing projects can attract hard to reach drug users and contribute to early warning systems for the availability of highly hazardous substances. Such approaches also deserve further piloting and evaluation.
  • are widely used yet under-researched - notably information, education and communication programmes and motivational interviewing approaches to conventional harm reduction targets such as the prevention of HIV, hepatitis C, hepatitis B and overdose.

Some Key Points from Review 3:

Global Trends
[summary] [full paper]

Estimating the production, trafficking and consumption of illicit drugs is a highly problematic process, accurate global figures being impossible to obtain. However, methods have improved greatly over the years and careful analysis of the available information allows some conclusions to be drawn.

Analysis of these trends makes quite gloomy reading for those hoping to see elimination or significant reduction: the over-riding impression is one of stable or increasing trends at the global level in recent years. However, this stability masks dynamic changes at the national and regional level.

Cultivation and production

Trends in the cultivation of opium show rapid increases over the 1980s and early 1990s – followed by relative stabilisation since. One exception to this stable picture at the global level was the year 2001, when the Taliban imposed a ban on opium growing in Afghanistan, leading to a decline at the global level. However, recent figures show a return to ‘normal levels’ for 2002.

Despite sharp rises in Coca production in the 1970s and 80s, the trend since has been relatively stable. However this has masked dramatic changes in individual countries: with massively reducing cultivation in Peru over the mid to late 1990s, offset by massively increasing cultivation in Colombia over this period. Recent estimates point to a drop in coca production in Colombia in 2002, as a consequence of intensive crop eradication efforts, but there are signs that this may not prove to be a lasting trend.

Trafficking and seizures

Seizures are a very imperfect measure of the extent of trafficking. However, trends show increasing seizures of opiates over the 1990s (save for a drop in 2001 reflecting the situation in Afghanistan) and fairly stable numbers of cocaine seizures. There were dramatic increases in methamphetamine seizures in East and South East Asia in the late 1990s and 2000 – and increases in cannabis seizures over the same period. Both trends appear to have dropped back a little in 2001.


Reliable data on consumption of drugs is simply unavailable for large areas of the world. It is nonetheless clear that a division is appearing between the fortunes of developed and developing countries. While trends in use in developed countries are largely stabilising or falling, increasing problems are being experienced in developing countries, especially where poverty and ready access to drugs of addiction collide. A trend of paramount concern is the unprecedented rise in methamphetamine use in East and South East Asia, with tragic social consequences. There also appear to be worrying increases in opiate injecting – and associated transmission of HIV – in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, parts of India and China and some African countries.

What implications does this picture carry for the UN’s dream of a ‘drug free world’? Unfortunately, the chances of making this dream a reality look very slight.

However, this is unsurprising: ultimately the trends described here are driven by forces largely beyond the control of the UN and the Governments represented there. Perhaps the primary force – demand for drugs – is extremely difficult to influence at the national level, let alone the global. On top of this, the profit motive will always ensure that there are poor people in impoverished areas of the world prepared to take the risks involved in the production and trafficking of illicit drugs.

The Next Five Years to 2008 (and beyond).

2003 is a key year for international drug policies because it affords the opportunity to honestly assess progress and decide how best to proceed to 2008. We believe that it is crucial that officials and policymakers resist the pressure to take the easy, diplomatic option of declaring that current policy is meeting its objectives, thereby missing a rare opportunity to grapple with the very real policy dilemmas emerging from the evidence base.

“It is my hope that when historians study the work of humankind in the field of drug control, they will write about the next few days as the point where this trend [of the proliferation of drugs] was reversed. ” UN Secretary-General Mr Kofi Annan,Special Session of the General Assembly June 8-10 1998

“We believe it is unwise, not to say self-defeating, to set targets which have no earthly chance of success.” UK Home Affairs Select Committee on UK Government’s Drugs Policy 2001

“I believe we all feel that something is wrong with our policy. This means that the drug problem impinges not only on matters relating to the health of a person in need of treatment, but also on crucial political aspects of our society. It impinges on our democratic institutions, and it is certain that tackling the problem solely in the context of criminality and policing is no longer enough.” Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, Athens Conference 2003

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