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Speech by the Hon. Emma Bonino
MEP (Radicals, Italy)

"Towards an Effective Policy on Drugs: Scientific evidence, day-to-day practice and policy choices. Overcoming obstacles for the implementation of evidence-based drug policies and interventions".

Athens, 5-8 March 2003

At the outset I would like to congratulate the Hellenic Presidency of the European Union for having organised this important event on an issue that is rarely debated openly and at such a high political level. Let also say that I am honoured to have been invited to contribute to this meeting on the drug strategies of the European Union from a critical perspective, the prospective of a radical antiprohibitionist. We are running the risk of being guided by ideology every time we address the issue of drugs. We should analyse facts, starting from what is happening in Europe. Of the 44 States in Europe, 43 parties to the 1961 Convention. Despite this, as clearly stated in the 2003 report of the International Narcotics Control Board "in Europe the problem of drug abuse appears to show no sign of abating". According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and drug Addiction, in member states of the European Union, there are between 5000,000 and 1 million drug injectors, excluding occasional and former drug injectors. While that figure represents less than 0,4 per cent of the population aged 15 to 64, drug injection is concentrated in communities with high levels of social deprivation and the individuals involved have multiple problems relating to physical and mental health and social and personal behaviour. Drug injection is associated with most cases of HIV, hepatitis and death by overdose among addicts. The Monitoring Center also tell us that there has been a steady increase in the number of people arrested on drug charges since 1985, complicating the administration of justice in virtually all countries as well as their prison system. On the other hand, since 1996, we have seen a systematic increase in the number of case of "problematic" drug users and HIV cases resulting from drug injection. As regards other countries in the region, according to 2003 INCB report, "the number of registrated drug abusers in the Russian Federation reached 496,000 in July 2002, up from 156,000. Russian authorities estimate the total number of drug abusers between three and four millions. In 2001, there were more than 80,000 new cases of HIV infection. In Ukraine 1% of the population is already infected with HIV and that figure is expected to double by 2010. It seems evident that ever since the first Convention on drugs was adopted in 1961, the world has seen a constant increase in all the aspect related to the drug phenomenon. In 1998, when the United Nations celebrated the 10th anniversary of coming into being of the 3rd Convention on Narcotics, yet another grand declaration was adopted and presented to the public with the slogan "1998 - 2008, a Drug Free World, We Can Do It!”. Among the worst accomplishments of these programs launched on the occasion, I would like to bring to your attention the fact that the UN office charged with drug control established working relationship at different levels with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. This at a time when the United Nations did not recognise the warrior clerics as the legitimate representatives of Afghanistan before the General Assembly! Another worrying example of the way in which the UN has dealt with contributions that were not in line with the general policies is the sort reserved to a study prepared by the World Health Organisation on the occasion of the 1998 Special Session of the General Assembly, in which it was recommended the rescheduling of cannabis for medical reasons and the defining of cannabis as a substance less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco. Let me know the turn briefly to Central and Latin America, where the effects of initiatives such as the Plan Colombia, all duly acknowledged in the 2001 report of the International Narcotics Control Board, not only have proved to be a disaster in that country - where violence at any level has never stopped and the production of coca is still one of the largest in world -, but they have also created situations of no man’s land in neighbouring countries, such as in certain regions of Ecuador and possibly also Venezuela. Countries within countries have been created by druglords that impose their law with the use of force and, at times, with the acquiescence of the central government. Both in the Afghani and the Colombian situations it has been proved by several researchers that profits from illicit drugs are the main financial source for terrorist network. Whether multilaterally under the umbrella of the United Nations or bilaterally European and Americans have spent hundreds of millions of Euros and Dollars to reduce the supply of drugs fumigating or burning crops in Colombia, Afghanistan, Iran as well as Vietnam, Burma and Laos, or have tried to promote alternative produce such as bananas or coffee to counter the spread of illicit cultivation. If, on the one hand, supply reduction by violent means has proved 100% ineffective with disastrous consequences for human lives and the environment, on the other the more “gentle” approach of alternative development has given some sporadic, and just temporary positive results in the case of Peru and Bolivia. Over the last five years the United Nations has also launched a series of initiatives to foster international co-operation at a legal and police level on matters related to drugs. But in planning all those projects, there has never been a frank and open debate, such as the one on the core crimes of the International Criminal Court, on the elements that define the crimes of producing, using or selling any of the substances prohibited by the three Conventions. Moreover, the UN has never established a mechanism to sanction those countries that do not abide by the Conventions! So, if on the one hand a lot of effort has been put in the preparation of a legal arsenal, on the other there has not been the same type of attention in the creation of some enforcing mechanisms. If this might be a problem vis à vis the international rule of law, yet another example of the disregard of the principle of legality at an international lever, at the same time it has allowed several countries to experiment with different criminal, but also social and medical approaches to the drug question. I am of course thinking about all projects implemented over the last couple of decades by several countries in different regions of the world, such as in the Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain and most recently Portugal, Belgium and Spain as well as Switzerland, Canada and Australia. At times these alternative approaches have favoured a toleration of the personal consumption of cannabis derivatives, at times we have seen the amendment of laws allowing the decriminalisation of the use of “soft drugs”. In several countries, local authorities, or the central government for that matter, have established the so-called “shooting rooms” or “narcosalas” where heroin addicts are treated like people in needs of medical assistance rather than a prison cell. As regards drug law reforms, in a report issued on September 2002, a special committee on illegal drugs of the Canadian Senate suggested to the Canadian Government to amend the "Controlled Drugs and Substances Act" by introducing a criminal exemption and regulatory scheme for the production, possession and distribution of cannabis for non-medical purposes. Last year, the Peruvian congress adopted a motion recommending the Government to support the idea of changing the status of coca leaf in the 1961 Convention. At the same time there is a national debate in the UK to reschedule marihuana. On several occasions, when the public has been asked to cast a vote for a reform of national drug laws - and I speak of personal experience having the Radical Party promoted a referendum in Italy exactly 10 years ago - the citizens have voted in favour of a drastic change encouraging initiatives to regulate drugs within different framework. The 1993 referendum in Italy, which was calling for full decriminalisation of personal use of all drugs, won with 54% of the electorate voting in favor of such a change in the law, which was the result of the Italy’s ratification of the 1988 Convention. All these encouraging developments have never been systematically presented to the UN as a possible alternative to the current situation. In fact and quite often they have been harshly criticised by the reports of the International Narcotic Control Board that have gone as far as warning reformer countries that those type of project might be considered not only in breach of the Conventions but also as incitements to the use drugs. In October of last year, at the European Parliament, the International Antiprohibitionist League, an organisation of drug reformers that I help to found in the late 1980s and that was recently revived to promote a radical revision of the UN Conventions, held a seminar on the reform of drug-related policies and laws with legislators and activists coming from different regions of the world. Since last fall, the International Antiprohibitionist League has reached out to members of Parliaments and members of Governments from Europe and Central and Latin America, and I understand that the feedback they are receiving from their contacts is quite encouraging. At the end of last October Conference at the EP a document was adopted as the final resolution of the gathering. The text, that I brought here with me today, was eventually introduced before the plenary of the EP in Strasbourg last 13 December by my radical colleague Marco Cappato and endorsed by 109 MEPs. Let me quote from the operational paragraphs where the members of the European Parliament: Maintains that the drug prohibition policy stemming from the UN Conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988 is the actual cause of the increasing damage which the production, trafficking, sale and consumption of illegal substances inflict on entire sections of society, the economy as well as public institutions, thus undermining health, freedom and individuals' lives and in view of the Ministerial Segment of the Commission of Narcotics that will be held at the UN Office of Vienna on 16 and 17 April 2003: Urges the Secretary-General and of the Member States of the UN to consider the positive results obtained through the implementation of policies in several countries, which involve harm and risk reduction (in particular through the administration of substitute substances), the decriminalisation of the consumption of certain substances, the partial decriminalisation of the sale of cannabis and its derivatives, and the medically controlled distribution of heroin, Calls on the Secretary-General and of the Member States of the UN to take action in order to make the fight against organised crime and drugs trafficking more effective, establishing a system for the legal control and regulation of the production, sale and consumption of substances which are currently illegal; Calls on the Secretary-General and of the Member States of the UN to initiate a process of revision of the UN Conventions, in order to reform or amend the 1961 and 1971 Conventions, with the aim of re-classifying substances and providing for other uses of drugs than only for medical and scientific purposes to be legal, and to repeal the 1988 Convention. The text of the recommendation will be debated by the plenary of the European Parliament on the eve of the Commission on Narcotics and in the meantime has been turned into a popular petition to the Secretary-General and the Member States of the United Nations that will meet in Vienna next month. There is no doubt that the final position of the EP will not go that far, but the debate - that it was able to trigger - should not be closed, once again, in the name of ideology. The Ellenic presidency has included in its priorities the evaluation of the international drug control treaties. This is the message that Europe should bring to Vienna. The European Union should initiate a debate based on scientific data in order to analyse the various policies and the results they have brought without pre-judgements and fears. In conclusion, while I would like to state my conviction that the legal regulation drugs might prove to be the most effect way to control the phenomenon, I would like to address fully. The purpose of these days of discussions, that is to make recommendations to the participants in the 46th session of the UN Commission on Narcotics. In light of what I tried to present before, I would urge the Member States of the United Nations to read the parameters set by the 1998 Plan of Action adopted at the Special Session of the General Assembly and compare them with the figures that the UN publishes every year in its assessment in the trends of production, consumption and sale of illicit substances. A critical reading of the failures of the last five years is also exposed in a publication recently issued by the International Antiprohibitionist League and that is available here today. After 40 years of prohibition we cannot continue to perpetuate the same mistakes over and over again. The UN should promote a systematic assessment of all its UN drug-related programs implemented world-wide, taking also into consideration issues related to the respect of individual living conditions and their human rights as much as costs and benefits. To achieve this, the United Nations should become the forum for an open frank, transparent and INCLUSIVE debate where prohibitionist and antiprohibitionist voices should be invited at the table, to discuss on the actuality of the provisions contained in the three UN documents. The time has come to address these issues in a multilateral context and I am confident that the Hellenic Presidency - consistently with its announced priorities - can become the catalyst of these types of concerns and lead the EU in fostering a diplomatic process to prepare the ground for a review conference on the UN conventions in order to evaluate the results obtained in the last years and to allow those Member States that have decided to pursue alternative paths to control drugs to do so within an international legal framework.

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