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Narcotics board looks to be 'closed to reason'
WAR ON DRUGS. International panel is dead set against supervised injection sites, even if it can't cogently argue why
Peter McKnight, Vancouver Sun
Published: Saturday, March 10, 2007
Given how the federal Conservatives feel about harm reduction measures, they didn't really need an excuse to shut down Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection facility. But the International Narcotics Control Board recently provided them with one nonetheless.
In its annual report, released last week, the United Nations panel stated that Insite facilitates "the illicit use of internationally controlled substances and violate[s] the provisions of international drug control treaties." Consequently, the board plans to advise Health Minister Tony Clement to shut down the site, possibly at the board's annual meeting next week.
This is certainly not the first time the board has spoken out about supervised injection sites -- SIFs. As the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the Open Society Institute document in an excellent expose of the board titled Closed to Reason, the sites, which now exist in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Spain, Norway, Luxembourg and Canada, have received significant attention from the board's annual reports for at least six years.
Each year the board has condemned countries that operate SIFs, concluding, without argument, that the sites amount to a violation of international law. A typical example comes from the board's 2002 report, where it said:
"By permitting injection rooms, a government could be considered to be in contravention of the international drug control treaties by facilitating, aiding and/or abetting the commission of crimes involving illegal drug possession and use, as well as other criminal offences, including drug trafficking."
As Closed to Reason documents, board members have been even less accommodating in public speeches. In a 2000 address to the UN, former board president Lourenco Martins described SIFs as "shooting galleries," and said they are places where "drug abusers are allowed to abuse illicit drugs obtained from the illicit market under supervision and under, supposedly, hygienic conditions."
This skepticism about the hygiene of SIFs seems a recurring motif, as the board said last week that it opposed "poorly supervised" injection rooms, which would seem to suggest that hygienic, well supervised rooms are A-OK.
But apparently not, since current president Philip Emafo maintained recently that SIFs violate "the most fundamental principal" of drug control treaties. Exactly how Emafo and the board came to this conclusion is a mystery since the annual report provides no explanation of why SIFs contravene the treaties.
Nevertheless, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the board's apparent inability to construct an argument to support its conclusions, it has engaged in attempts to silence anyone who speaks in favour of SIFs.
Stephen Lewis, former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, visited Insite in 2006, spoke about how it could help reduce the transmission of blood-borne diseases, and advised other Canadian cities to consider following Vancouver's lead.
For his trouble, Lewis received a call from board secretary Koli Kouame, who equated SIFs with "opium dens," and threatened to inform then-UN secretary-general Kofi Annan of Lewis's heresy. Kouame made good on his threat, with Emafo demanding in the letter to Annan that Lewis retract his statements. To his credit, Lewis refused to do so.
After all, there is good reason to believe the board is simply wrong in holding that SIFs violate drug control treaties. According to Article 4 of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, parties must "limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the ... distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs."
The board concluded that Insite violates this article since, in the board's erroneous view, Insite's purpose is to get "public nuisances off the streets." Yet while studies suggest Insite has helped to improve public order, this was never the purpose of the site.
On the contrary, Insite was opened to test the efficacy of such medical interventions in improving the health of addicts and their communities, which suggests that it has both scientific and medical purposes. It's hard to imagine any intervention that would be more in keeping with Article 4.
But don't take my word for it. Lawyers advising Health Canada came to a similar conclusion about the legal status of Insite before its opening, and lawyers in Germany, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Switzerland have all concluded that SIFs don't violate drug control treaties.
But you don't have to take their word for it either, since the UN itself has concluded that SIFs comply with the treaties. In 2002, the board, which apparently doesn't take anyone's word for it, asked lawyers with the UN International Drug Control Program for advice on the legality of SIFs.
Contrary to statements made by board members before -- and since -- 2002, the lawyers said:
"It would be difficult to assert that, in establishing drug-injection rooms, it is the intent of parties to actually incite or induce the illicit use of drugs, or even more so, to associate with, aid, abet or facilitate the possession of drugs." Obviously it's not difficult for board members to make those assertions, but notice how this quote seems a direct rejoinder to the comments board members continue to make.
The lawyers' report continued: "It seems clear that in such cases the intention of governments is to provide healthier conditions for IV drug abusers, thereby reducing their risk of infection with grave transmittable diseases and, at least in some cases, reaching out to them with counselling and other therapeutic options."
The report concludes by saying that permitting SIFs falls "far from the intent of committing an offence" under the treaties. Nevertheless, shortly after receiving the lawyers' report, Emafo said SIFs incite people to use drugs. And every year since receiving the lawyers' advice, the board has maintained that SIFs violate the treaties. All of which makes one wonder why the board asked for the advice in the first place.
Perhaps the board thought the lawyers' report would be more to its liking, more in keeping with its ideology. And make no mistake about it, the board has proven time and again that its positions are the products of its ideology rather than of legal or scientific arguments.
The ideology is, simply put, one of drug prohibitionism, of maintaining the war on drugs at any cost and responding with hostility to any suggestion that harm reduction might play a role in reducing the health and societal costs of drug addiction.
For example, Closed to Reason notes that the board has repeatedly praised countries that have engaged in draconian drug crackdowns, including Bulgaria, Russia, China and Thailand, which recently addressed its drug problems by arresting thousands of people and murdering many others.
In contrast, while the board claims to support harm reduction measures such as opiate substitution treatment and needle exchanges, members have attempted to discredit such interventions, with the board president, as recently as 2002, wrongly claiming that needle exhanges contravene drug treaties.
The board is, of course, free to continue promoting the failed war on drugs, however counterproductive it may be, provided it makes its agenda explicit.
But as a body charged with monitoring countries' compliance with drug control treaties, it should not be free to tell falsehoods about the legal status of harm reduction measures to advance its agenda. And it should certainly not be free to use those falsehoods to try to pressure governments into complying with that agenda.