News And Other Busyness
UNGASS - The Bogeymen
Campaign groups fear that this year’s UN Assembly on Drugs will miss opportunities and deepen misunderstandings. Sam Wild investigates.
Squall 16, Summer 1998, pg. 8.
NEW YORK will host a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) titled 'Combatting Drugs Together' this June in an effort to hammer out an international strategy aimed at controlling the spread of illicit drugs.
The first of its kind, it will bring together domestic and foreign secretaries from around the world with an emphasis on maintaining the current 'war on drugs', spearheaded by the USA, and optimistically seeks to "eliminate, or significantly reduce the illicit manufacturing, marketing and trafficking of psychotropic substances" by the year 2008.
Drug awareness-raising groups around the world are pointing to UNGASS as another example of prohibitionist logic dictating world-wide policy.
Ken Bluestone, Policy Officer for Latin America Drugs and Development, at the Catholic Institute of International Relations (CIIR), who monitor international drugs policy, warns that the costly scheme to internationalise anti-drugs campaigns and legislation could create more problems than it seeks to remedy.
"This event risks becoming a lost opportunity for the re-evaluation of drugs policy," he says echoing the logic of an earlier CIIR letter circulated to Non-Government Groups. The document points to issues connected with many of the current anti-drugs drives taking place in countries across the world and states "in most countries, drug control policies ... have proven unsuccessful in countering the illicit drugs trade, and, to the contrary, have contributed to its increase".
It is feared that few opportunities will be available to discuss progressive policies which do not toe the 'get tough' line while the stated goals of UNGASS on drugs are unrealistic according to Bristol-based drug legislation reform group Transform.
"UNGASS on drugs are not going to eradicate drugs in ten years - it's fantasy land but the implications are completely dangerous and it jeopardises progressive drug policies in countries all over the world."
Experimental programmes in several countries, including Holland and Switzerland, have provided viable alternatives to the aggressive anti-drug rhetoric of countries like the USA where approximately half a million people are in prison on drug-related charges.
A recent campaign involving 1,000 heroin addicts in Zurich had dramatic and immediate effects. Figures generated by the project (which provided pure heroin, needles and comprehensive counselling) saw income generated through illegal activities fall from 59 per cent to 10 per cent and witnessed an increase in permanent employment from 14 per cent to 32 per cent.
In Holland, a country noted for its acceptant attitudes towards drugs, the figures on drug abuse compare favourably to all its European Union counterparts. The number of drug-related deaths was the lowest in Europe at 2.4 per million against 9.5 in France, 20 in Germany, 23.5 in Sweden and 27.1 in Spain.
Several criticisms have also been levelled at the principles which underpin UNGASS, including the violation of human rights, the marginalisation of drug-users and the inappropriate use of funds on the enforcement of ineffective drug controls. This is particularly relevant in third world countries where drug eradication programmes include the use of ecologically damaging herbicides on drug-linked crops like cocoa and opium poppies cultivated by poverty-driven farmers in countries like Colombia, Peru, Burma and Thailand.
Increasingly oppressive legislation is being drafted and enforced by governments across the globe including Mexico where a group of indigenous Huichols (two women, four men and a child) were recently arrested and are still being detained by police for possessing the hallucinogenic Peyote plant. According to pressure groups Mexico has signed the Vienna Agreement, 1975 (which allows indigenous communities to use drugs in ancient spiritual practices) and therefore the arrests and subsequent incarceration of the group is illegal.
Ken Bluestone sees UNGASS on drugs as potentially damaging for the people of Latin America who are increasingly the target of inappropriate actions which channel money away from important infrastructural developments, including health and education, into measures aimed at strengthening the powers of severe regimes. "If the strategies which are being discussed in the corridors of UNGASS on drugs go-ahead without serious re-evaluation they risk hitting drug-linked crop producers (who are already at the bottom of the drugs chain) and will make them the victims of further human rights abuses.
Danny Kushlick remains concerned that beneficial programmes unveiled in the UK designed at targetting drug-users for rehabilitation and education could suffer under the draconian net being cast under the name of UNGASS internationalism which will cost approximately $4 billion and will be orchestrated by the United Nations Drugs Control Programme.
'Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain' (a White Paper recently unveiled by the Home Office which houses UK Anti-Drugs Coordinator Keith Hellawell) outlines the UK's new strategy for combatting drug use. While fundamentally a rubber stamp for further punitive action on illicit drug use, sales and distribution it nevertheless points towards a greater acceptance of the need to explore viable alternatives. A press release states that (Tony Blair) understands "that drug problems do not occur in isolation ... The new Social Exclusion Unit is looking at many of the problems often associated with drug taking, such as school exclusions, truancy, rough sleeping and poor housing".
Clearly UNGASS has the potential to deepen rifts between the commitments being made by governments at a national and international level. Actions are now being planned by drug-awareness raising groups around the world with UK NGOs intending to highlight issues connected with its enforcement through the Foreign Office and the Home Office. A home Office spokesperson verified that a representative from the UK Government would be attending the conference in New York.