26 February 2009

"Positive Balance Sheet" from Century of Drug Control

VIENNA, 26 February (UN Information Service) - Centennial celebrations were held in Shanghai today to mark the 100th anniversary of the International Opium Commission which met in Shanghai, China, in February 1909. The Opium Commission meeting was the first international conference to control drugs, and led to the conclusion of the first international convention on drug control, the Hague International Opium Convention of 1912. Addressing the commemoration - attended by representatives of the 13 nations that took part in the original meeting - the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, said that "from a historical perspective, the first century of drug control shows a positive balance sheet". 

Demand for drugs has stabilized. A century ago, around 25 million people were using opium in the world - 1.5 per cent of the world's population at that time. China faced an opium epidemic. According to official statistics, almost one quarter of Chinese men consumed opium in 1906, and around 5 per cent of the total Chinese population was addicted. Today, around the world, the total number of problem drug users is around 25 million - less than 0.5 per cent of humanity. The number of people who use illicit drugs at least once a year has been contained to 5 per cent of the adult population - a much lower prevalence than for alcohol and tobacco. Deaths due to drugs are limited to 200,000 a year: one tenth of those killed by alcohol; and twenty times less than those killed by tobacco. "This achievement has been a century in the making: let's not unravel it by loosening controls on drug use", said Mr. Costa. 

A century ago, the supply of drugs was out of control. In 1906, more than 40,000 tons of opium was produced, mostly in China and India (compared to less than 8,000 tons in Afghanistan last year). "Some national (or imperial) economies were as dependent on opium - for the revenue that it generated - as the addicts themselves", said Mr. Costa. Thanks to international drug control, opium cultivation has been slashed by almost three quarters: the problem is now concentrated in one country, Afghanistan, which produces 92 per cent of the world's deadliest drug. Coca leaves, which used to be grown in several countries, are now only grown in three Andean countries: Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. "Compared to a century ago, drug demand and supply have been brought under control", said the head of UNODC. "Adherence to the international drug control regime (based on three United Nations treaties) is universal, and the principle of shared responsibility is unanimously accepted".

However, Mr. Costa cautioned that "while the world drug problem has been contained, it has not been solved". He emphasized the need for more development assistance to countries where illicit crops are grown, and to those caught in the cross-fire of drug trafficking. He called for a change in policy - "against crime, not in favour of drugs" - to deal with the massive criminal black market in drugs that is "an unintended consequence of drug control". He also appealed to states to provide more information to ensure that policy is evidence-based.

Looking ahead to the future of drug control, Mr. Costa said that "reducing demand for drugs is priority number one, starting with 'A' for abstinence, and including prevention, treatment, and measures to reduce the harm that drugs cause to individuals and to society".

The United Nations drug tsar stressed that health and human rights should be at the centre of drug control. "Addicts should be sent to treatment, not to jail or into the gutters. Drug criminals should be brought to justice, not put to death. Although drugs kill, governments should not kill because of drugs," he said.

The effectiveness of drug control will be the focus of the upcoming session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) that will meet in Vienna from 11 to 20 March, including a two-day high-level segment to assess progress made over the past ten years under the so-called United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) process.


For more information on a century of international drug control, refer
to the UNODC website at www.unodc.org

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For further information, please contact:

Walter Kemp
Spokesman and Speechwriter
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
Telephone: (+43-1) 26060-5629
Mobile: (+43-699) 1459-5629
Email: walter.kemp@unodc.org