UNODC is cosponsor of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS - UNAIDS
Health: The First Principle of Drug Policy
It is often forgotten that health is the first principle of drug policy. Improving security (against drug traffickers and dealers) and promoting development (to enable farmers to find sustainable alternatives to growing illicit crops) are necessary, but not sufficient, measures. Because even if you eliminate the world's entire supply of cannabis, coca, and opium, and even if you could seize all drugs in circulation, you would still have 25 million drug users looking for ways to satisfy their addiction. So the key to drug policy is reducing demand for drugs and treating addiction - and that is very much a health care issue.
Concern about the health effects of drug use was the chief motivating factor for the 1961 UN Drug Control Convention. Yet, over time, public security has taken priority over public health. This is reflected in resource imbalances (around 3:1 in favour of spending on security) and policy priorities. I fear this is political expediency: to focus on quick wins, like seizures and arrests (that reduce the problem), rather than on agents of slow change, like prevention and treatment (that can solve the problem).
It is also the result of the fact that the challenge of reducing demand for drugs has been left to individual states, whereas interdiction and reducing the world's supply of illicit drugs are the focus of multi-lateral agreements. There are Guiding Principles of Demand Reduction (1998), but they do not carry the same weight as an international convention. The practice is even more remote from the statements of principle.
It is time to redress the balance and bring health back to the mainstream of drug policy. That means putting more resources into prevention and treatment, as well as research to better understand what makes people vulnerable to addiction.
Then there the question of reducing the harm caused by drugs. It is not only a question of handing out condoms, clean needles, disinfectants and bowls of soup. What is needed is a comprehensive package of measures to reduce vulnerability, treat the drug illness, and prevent the spread of diseases that precede and accompany drug use, like HIV and hepatitis.
But let us be more radical. Let us reach out to people who need treatment, on a non-discriminatory basis. Drug therapy should be mainstreamed into high-quality and accessible public health and social services - not ghettoized. There is also no point in throwing all drug users in jail. We must promote alternative measures to prison for drug addicts, offering them rehabilitation programmes. Furthermore, all forms of addiction should be treated: there is no consolation for stabilizing drug trends if people turn instead to other substances.
Finally, and most importantly, let us make drug control a society-wide issue. Drug abuse is an illness. Let's treat it that way.
For more information on this issue, see two papers recently produced by UNODC: