Shanghai made all the difference

How the world has benefited from a century of drug controls

Address on Centenary Day of the 1909 Shanghai Opium Conference


Shanghai, 26 February 2009

Mr Chairman,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I thanks the Government of the People's Republic of China for hosting this event. I titled my statement "Shanghai made all the difference -- How the world has benefited from a century of drug controls". I hope you agree. Right here in Shanghai, 100 years ago, the first steps were taken to stop the opium trade.

I would like to conjugate Shanghai 1909 with Vienna 2009. Meeting in Vienna in a few weeks time ministers - and many of you present here today -will review the past 100 years of drug control for sure, but especially the past 10 years - namely the outcome of the process that started with the General Assembly special session on drugs (UNGASS, 1998).

The numbers speak for themselves: drug control has worked, and this is documented in the volume UNODC prepared on occasion of this Conference. I invite you all to look at it carefully.

A century ago, around 25 million people were using opium in the world - 1.5% of the world's population at that time, that was 1/5 today's. China alone faced an opium epidemic. Almost 1/4 of Chinese men consumed opium in 1906, and around 5% of the total Chinese population was addicted.

Today, with 6 billion people on the planet, almost a quarter of them in China, the total number of problem drug users in the world is 25 million - less than 0.5% of humanity. The number of people who take drugs occasionally (at least once a year) is 5% of the adult population - a fraction of the prevalence for alcohol and tobacco. Deaths due to drugs are 200,000 a year: one tenth of those killed by alcohol; and twenty times less than those killed by tobacco. So demand is relatively low.

What about supply? A century ago, the situation was out of control. In 1906, more than 40,000 tons of opium was produced in China and India. That total has been slashed by three-quarters, to 10,000 tons. While opium was produced in China, Indochina, Burma, India, Persia, Turkey and the Balkan countries, the illegal production of opium is now concentrated in one country, Afghanistan (92%).

Coca leaves were cultivated in Latin America and Asian. Today coca crops are concentrated in three Andean countries: Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

International drug control can take some of the credit.

Attitudes have also changed in the past century. Before the Shanghai Opium Commission, there was no international solidarity to control drugs. Unilateral efforts - particularly by the Chinese authorities - were undermined by powerful mercantile and political interests in Europe that benefited from the drugs trade. Some imperial economies were as dependent on opium (for the revenue that it generated) as the addicts themselves. In that colonial time, opium had the power to make and break major trading Companies, even states.

Today, adherence to the international drug control regime (based on 3 UN treaties) is universal. The principle of shared responsibility is unanimously accepted.

Furthermore, unlike a hundred years ago, we have considerable knowledge about drugs - from production locations to crops, from trafficking routes to seizures, from abuse data to household surveys. We know what goes on in the brain of addicts: why they are vulnerable to substance abuse, the health condition they face and how to deal with them in a scientific and compassionate way. Knowledge is the basis for action, not ideology - as it is the case on the part of the vocal minority of pro-drug lobbyists who try to discredit the Shanghai Commission, the UN Conventions and the UNGASS process.

Ladies and Gentlemen, on this important occasion, I invite you to be mindful that the world drug challenge remains enormous. I will focus on three tasks: (i) health, (ii) development and (iii) security.

(i.) More emphasis must be put on reducing the damage to health from drugs. Drug prevention starts with "A", namely from abstinence. This would reduce the harm caused, for example, by the spreading of HIV. Drug prevention goes further than that: it goes all the way to the promotion of healthy live-styles, and to the treatment of addicts. We need to motivate public opinion to stand behind drug control campaigns - just as people are firm against tobacco. Recent trends in the Netherlands and especially Switzerland show that there is little public support for more lax drug policies: in Switzerland 3 referenda for the legalization of cannabis were turned down resolutely.

(ii.) Development enables communities to eradicate poverty as well as illicit crops. We have seen this in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. Development also reduces the vulnerability of communities caught in the cross-fire of drug trafficking. That is why UNODC is promoting regional counter-narcotics and development initiatives in West Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.


(iii.) Now about security: we must also have the courage to look at a dramatic unintended consequence of drug control: the emergence of a criminal market of staggering proportions. It is a costly failure that, if unattended, will undo the benefits of drug control. The violence and corruption associated with the drug trade have led the vocal minority of pro-drug lobbyists to argue that the cure is worse than the disease, and that drug legalization is the solution.

To yield to this suggestion would be an historical mistake: the moral equivalent of undoing the Shanghai process. Health (drug control) and security (crime prevention) are mutually supportive commitments. Yet, because drug trafficking enriches criminals, destroys communities and threatens nations, it has to be dealt with urgently and forcefully. Policy change is required against crime, not in favour of drugs.

Mr Chairman: in closing I would like to offer the UNODC view about this.

First we need to develop anti-crime measures able to address all elements of the drug chain (supply, trafficking and demand) in an integrated manner. So far there have been mostly disjointed interventions that have displaced the problem, measures have been incoherently applied over time (with uneven political commitment), and over space (without the coordination required by international agreements). The United Nations legal instruments against Organized Crime provide a platform for joint action: yet Member States have so far failed to implement them in a way that has a significant impact on the drug trade.

Second, we need to develop community resistance. The drug trade infects individuals as much as society. From ghettos in the hands of thugs and to regions controlled by crime lords exploitation, instability, even terrorism prevail. Yet, violence can be prevented, to make these places un-hospitable to anti-social behaviours. The challenge is to re-integrate marginalized segments of society and draw them into, rather than push them out of, the law. From the Andes to South East Asia, this has been done with drug farmers who have been assisted to switch to licit cultivation. From Europe to North America this has been done with addicts who are being helped to abandon the habit. It can be duplicated in the heart of ghettos and in cities out-of-control, to rescue unemployed, often illiterate youth that face no other options than joining criminal gangs.

Third, we need to develop shared resistance. The drug trade corrupts social and governmental structures, as well as business and finance. Nations need to strengthen their resistance to the threat posed by an underworld with hundreds of billions of dollars at its disposal. This is not happening. Money laundering is rampant: honest citizens, seeing the expensive cars, yachts and mansions of untouchable mafias and their cronies, wonder why proceeds of crime are not seized. Internet suppliers provide drugs, arms, even people online. One of humanity's biggest capital assets, the web, when perversely used turns into a weapon in the hands of criminals and terrorists. Surprisingly, calls for international agreements to fight cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism, go un-answered. Even existing international legal instruments are not applied: the Conferences of the Parties for the implementation of the UN Conventions against Corruption and against Organized Crime, have been inept.

The overall context has weakened the respect for human rights. Although drugs and crime kill, societies should not kill because of them. There cannot be disagreement on this. When the law is not observed, when rampant inequalities are the result of crime rather than honest work, harsh punishment is tempting. Governments must oppose it and up-hold human rights.

Mr Chairman: this is not new, for sure. Yet, my strong words are a symptom that we, at UNODC, feel uncomfortable about the world crime situation that has resulted from drug controls. I will present a paper on this subject to the Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND) in two weeks time. I hope you will support it.

Let us use the centenary of the first meeting of the International Opium Commission to re-balance and re-vitalize drug control. We owe it to future generations as much as we owe thanks to the earlier generation that met right in this city 100 years ago to change the world drug situation.

Thank you for your attention.

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