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Homeland Security

Press Conference on Findings of International Narcotics Control Board 2009 Report

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

25 February 2010

The International Narcotics Control Board was concerned that the “creeping normalization” of so-called medicinal marijuana might spur addictive or hard-core use of the drug, a Board member said today while presenting its annual report at a Headquarters press conference.

Melvin Levitsky said that, under the international treaties that had established the Board, Governments had a right to legitimize medical marijuana and have it prescribed by doctors, but the drug should be used only for scientific and medicinal purposes. In some cases, however, it had been designated as a medicine “by referendum”, without scientific basis, he said, adding that most people agreed on the dangers of smoking drugs, which was the main method of administering marijuana.

If Governments were scientifically to isolate marijuana’s curative properties, the Board would encourage its use, he said in response to questions. However, it disapproved of the “slipshod” way in which that had been done with a substance that was smoked, and which was 10 times as strong as the “pot” of the 1960s and 1970s. For a long time, there had been no instances of people going into emergency rooms for being “strung out” on marijuana, but today the largest number of emergency room visits involved abuse of marijuana, he pointed out.

The Board was concerned about the proliferation of what was considered to be a dangerous drug and labelled as such by every country that had signed the international drug control treaties, he said. The treaties stipulated that, if a country chose to use a scientific basis to designate marijuana as a useful medicine, it must establish an agency to regulate and control it. That had not been done anywhere, so there was a “creeping labelling of what is considered a dangerous drug, as medicine”, he said.

He said thereport covered most of 2009, devoting a special chapter to primary prevention and the need to delay first-use of drugs, including some recommendations for Governments in that regard. An estimated 170 million to 250 million people had used an illegal drug in the past year, generating great costs, such as corruption and societal disruption to several countries at varying stages of development, as well as a string of international crimes, he said, adding that most countries considered such a situation to be a threat to national security.

While understanding that drug-control measures often depended on a society’s culture, the Board’s recommendations for Governments included the need for a focal point combining all anti-drug elements, he said. Such steps included prevention; coordination of work; building public-private partnerships; sharing best practices worldwide; and better evaluation systems aimed at shedding light on what worked best. Policy setting was also important, especially in education, he stressed, noting that if the area surrounding a school was populated by drug dealers, or if its students had no positive after-school activities and their family life was not conducive to prevention, it was very difficult to provide protection against first-use of drugs.

He said the Board was also concerned about “doctor shopping”, whereby children and young people were able to get prescription drugs from medicine chests at home. Reports from around the world indicated increasing abuse of drugs such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, which, while legally sold by prescription, were dangerous and addictive. There was also a growing use of so-called date-rape drugs to commit sex crimes, some of which were not yet controlled within the system. One such drug, the hallucinatory ketamine used by veterinarians, was being abused in several countries and not only industrialized ones.

Turning to supply issues, he said the production of coca had declined in Colombia and two of the other largest producers in the region. The manufacture of cocaine was, therefore, also potentially down. In the United States, the biggest illegal drug market, its use had generally fallen somewhat, while Europe, where the main problem was heroin, was now experiencing an “intense” problem with cocaine. The Board was concerned that much of the cocaine from South America was being “catapulted” to Europe via West Africa. That carried entailed problems of corruption, bribery, international crime, attempts to weaken the will of Governments, and attacks on institutions, disrupting several countries struggling to achieve development, he said.

Noting that precursor chemicals were being sent to Africa for the production of methamphetamines, he said the Board had been concerned about one particular seizure in Guinea which seemed to have been aimed at setting up a production facility. The continent, therefore, might not only be serving as a springboard into Europe, but possibly as a manufacturing site as well. That would have a dangerous effect on a part of the world experiencing conflict and struggling to strengthen Government institutions, he warned, pointing out that certain African countries had also experienced an up-tick in prescription drug abuse.

The picture was mixed in Asia, he continued. Most heroin originated in Afghanistan –- which, in addition to the rest of South Asia, had also seen increasing abuse of marijuana –- from where it was exported to Europe. More of Afghanistan’s provinces had been declared opium-free, although production remained very high, fuelling the insurgency, Taliban and terrorist activities and the drug traffickers’ profits. The country also had a problem with precursor chemicals, the primary one for heroin production being acetic anhydride, which was also used in legitimate industries, he said, pointing out that Afghanistan had no industry that used it.

He said the chemical was crossing various Afghan borders, such as the one with China, although the Government had declared illegal its importation for use in converting raw opium into morphine base and then into heroin. Countries surrounding Afghanistan had been urged to tighten their controls over acetic anhydride because it affected the stability of all countries –- those to the north through the Russian Federation, and those to the south via Iran.

As for Latin America, he said he was concerned about up-ticks in Bolivia, where the Government’s formal position was “coca yes, cocaine no”, which allowed for the chewing of coca leaves. The Board had pointed out that coca-leaf chewing and the production of coca-infused products was in violation of the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, but it was Bolivia’s right to try to amend the treaty. In Mexico, the Government was involved in a violent struggle with several cartels which had been vicious in their retaliation.

Turning to Europe, he said the general concern involved the normalization of marijuana use and the “coffee shops” where cannabis sativa -- the drug’s scientific name -- was sold for use both inside and outside. While the United States had seen a positive downward trend in drug abuse, prescription drugs had outpaced heroin and cocaine, and were second only to marijuana, he said, adding that the Board had followed with interest and concern various measures by state governments. The federal Government had taken on an obligation to sign the Convention, he said.

The Board was concerned about measures before 14 or 15 state legislatures, aimed not at legalizing marijuana, but at introducing it under a medical regime, he continued. In California, the state prosecutor’s office was trying to close down the estimated thousands of cannabis dispensaries state-wide. “ California was awash in medical marijuana, beyond what might be needed for medicinal purposes,” he said, noting that the United States Government had said that, while it did not believe marijuana was medicine, it had chosen not to prosecute those using or dispensing medicinal marijuana under state laws. However, treaty provisions against television advertising of narcotic drugs were violated daily, a bad trend that could lead to greater abuse of legal drugs, he warned.

Replying to further questions about the Board’s position on the use of medicinal marijuana, he explained that it had a quasi-judicial function to interpret the relevant treaties. Some provisions called for criminalizing the misuse of drugs, but that was up to individual countries. The Board’s concern was that decriminalization had led to a lack of control over particular drugs, and it supported alternative sentencing through drug courts. There were some 2,000 of those in the United States which might impose a sentence of mandatory treatment instead of jail time for abuse or possession of a banned substance. While still considered criminal under the Convention, States had some flexibility in attaching penalties to such offences.

He stressed that the Board’s concern was the message that decriminalization sent to the overall population. It might have the effect of increasing drug abuse, or at least lowering the guard of some with respect to abuse. Marijuana, for example, was considered not to have any medicinal or scientific use under international conventions, but the determination of its medicinal use in the United States and elsewhere had not gone through the normal procedures.

As forthe Board’s response to Canada’s marijuana programme,he said the Government had a right to legitimize medical marijuana and have it prescribed by doctors under the relevant treaties, but the Board was concerned about guiding principles and drug control, as well as the designation of marijuana as a medicine without scientific basis.

Asked about the Board’s view of the Mexican Government’s policies, he recalled that the cartels had done their business without Government interference for many years, but now, the Government had taken up the fight, with the cooperation of the United States and other neighbours. The undertaking had taken a great toll on Mexican society in terms of violence and deaths, but the Board valued the Government’s brave efforts. Mexico was the primary conduit for the precursor chemical used in making methamphetamines, and the Government had now basically shut that off, with the help of the Board, which had a system of pre-export notification. There had also been a big drop in the use of methamphetamines in the United States, he added.

In response to a query about the Board’s position on needle exchange and HIV, he said that nothing in the Convention addressed the AIDS-causing virus, but needle exchange was in conformity with the treaty as long as it did not promote the use or abuse of drugs. Such programmes should be controlled, and injecting addicts should receive counselling, with abstention from drug use as the final goal. Reducing drug abuse would curb HIV transmission because unsafe sex under the influence of drugs could be a major factor in passing on the virus, he pointed out.

As for efforts by the United States to reduce drug consumption, he said the country took that problem very seriously, devoting much effort and funds to address it. There had been some progress, but demand within the United States created the supply, he said, noting that unhindered supply, in turn, created additional demand. For example, during the crack epidemic of the 1980s, the number of addicts had risen as prices had fallen. The Office of Drug Control Policy was not satisfied because drug abuse remained high, but the problem had gone down among youth, who were not experimenting as much as they had in the past.

In response to another question, he agreed that if drug use in the United States was brought down, the drug traffickers would try Europe, where the currency was strong. That was a good example of how increasing supply could create or exacerbate a problem. The United States had brought down cocaine abuse, so the traffickers looked around and made a market in Europe, where it had indisputably “risen considerably”.

Mr. Levitsky explained that the 13-member Board was elected by the Economic and Social Council, and each member served a five-year term. Three of the thirteen -- usually experts in pharmacology, psychiatry or pharmaceuticals -- were nominated and then elected by the World Health Organization (WHO). Although the remaining members were nominated by Governments, they all served in a personal capacity.

He said the independent Board had been set up by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, being reaffirmed by the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and in 1988 by the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Also in 1988, the treaty-based organ, which monitors and promotes Governments initiatives to carry out measures mandated by the three treaty organizations on the use and abuse of licit and illicit drugs, had been given a special role in the area of precursor chemicals. Together with Governments, the Board monitors the flow of licit analgesic drugs that have narcotic or psychotropic effects. It undertakes missions to countries of interest and communicates with them on a confidential basis. It includes a brief summary of such missions in its reports.

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For information media • not an official record

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