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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 28th February 2012

There are many victims of the war on drugs. There are those who, because of the illegal status of the substance(s) concerned, fail to seek help when their use starts to become uncontrolled. There are those involved in supplying illegal markets who may find themselves incarcerated, wounded or killed as a result of their activities. And there are the relatives and friends of these first line causalities who, because of their association, have their lives blighted and become second line casualties.

But there are also those whose lives become blighted by the international regime for dealing with psychoactive substances and prosecuting the war on drugs without them taking any of these substances themselves and, quite possibly, without them being related to or knowing anyone who does. These are the victims of the International Narcotic Control Board (INCB) whose annual report is published today.

I mentioned on Sunday, the ‘Technical Report’ setting out the estimated requirements for what the UN calls ‘Narcotic Drugs’ even though many of them have a stimulating effect not a narcotic one. I’ve been wrestling with that report, and making very little progress because there is just so much detail and it is so over-stated. Does anyone seriously believe that a country can estimate its need for morphine, for example, to the nearest 1gm? I have to wonder if the officials in Saudi Arabia, India and the USA, to give three examples, know how ridiculous their figures are when they submit them to the INCB.

What I wanted to do was test the hypothesis that some countries limit the availability of licit medications derived from the same plants, like Papaver somniferum and Erythroxylum coca, as substances within the scope of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because they fear the consequences if the INCB finds that some of those licit supplies are leaking into the illicit market.

That turned out to be far more complex than you would have thought but, while I was still wrestling with it, the INCB annual report came along and gave me the answer I was looking for. Before I come to that, though, I want to write a little more about the INCB itself.

I can’t help thinking that the big mistake was made by whoever decided on the name in the first place. I suppose that, if you’re going to have an international regime for controlling certain substances, you need some way of evaluating how well it is working but you could do that with an International Narcotic Monitoring Board. It’s that word ‘Control’ that causes all the problems because the INCB really thinks its role is to control the actions of sovereign states.

And the real trouble comes when those sovereign states are so cowed by the threats of what could happen to them, in terms of lost aid and becoming international pariahs, that they, in effect, cede control to the INCB by trying to stay out of the licit market. It really seems as though this has led to the INCB reinforcing its own sense of itself so that it now uses the language of the schoolteacher intent of punishing any transgression and equally intent on subduing any tendency to transgress.

That control language is, of course, mixed with the language of prohibition where things are viewed from a particular position and the logical deductions to be made from the language used just don’t get made.

Almost all you need to know about the INCB is in the foreword by Hamid Ghodse, the INCB President. Here are a few examples.

For many reformers, the argument for change starts with the fact that the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs calls for countries to ‘limit exclusively to medical and
scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use
and possession of drugs’. This has not happened and, therefore, critics cite over forty years of failure when referring to the convention.

The INCB, however, sees its origins, not in the 1961 single Convention but in the 1912 International Opium Convention signed in The Hague. Mr Ghodse, with no irony whatever, dedicates the 2012 INCB Annual Report to one hundred years of failure.

He writes;

‘Prior to the adoption of the 1912 Convention, the world was experiencing an abysmal
situation with regard to drugs. In most countries, trade in drugs was not regulated and
substance abuse was widespread.’

I think a great many people would have followed that by noting that very little has changed in the past century but, of course, that is not the view from the inside of the INCB because Mr Ghodse writes;

‘Over the past 100 years, significant achievements have been made in international drug

I suppose that’s a reasonable thing to say if you are referring to the growth in the bureaucracy that has grown up around ‘international drug control’ but it is completely unreasonable if you are trying to suggest that there is any real control on the availability of illicit drugs.

But then he writes a sentence that does not have an ambiguity of interpretation and is, thus, just plain wrong;

‘The international drug control system is a great example of how multilateralism can succeed in bringing benefits to humanity, preventing the abuse of drugs, as well as the harm caused by such abuse, while ensuring adequate availability of drugs for medical and scientific purposes, including the treatment of pain and mental illness.’

There are two parts to that sentence. First, there is no justification for suggesting that the control regime has had any success in ‘preventing the abuse of drugs’ and, second, the notion of ‘adequate availability’ is bizarre, especially in light of what he writes six paragraphs further on.

But before getting to that, I want to look at two other points. The first gives a clear indication of the schoolmasterly bullying that underlies almost all of what the INCB does. As it was legally permitted to do Bolivia, last year, denounced the Single Convention and then reacceded to it but with a reservation over the use of coca leaves by Bolivians in the way that has been done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It’s worth a reminder, at this point, that a WHO survey, suppressed by the USA because it didn’t like its findings, reported this traditional, cultural use as producing almost no harm whatever.

Mr Gohdse’s reaction, however, is to describe Bolivia’s action as ‘One major challenge to the international drug control system’ and to call it ‘contrary to the fundamental object and spirit of the Convention’. Is the control system operated by the INCB really so weak and ineffectual that it can be threatened by action taken by one small country and affecting, mostly, peasant farmers?

Mr Gohdse ends his foreword by writing;

‘As we celebrate the centennial of the signing of the International Opium Convention at The
Hague in 1912, let us also celebrate the achievements of the international drug control system in the past century and bolster our efforts to make the next century of drug control even more successful than the last one.’

To look at these ‘achievements’ and get a sense of how ‘successful’ 100 years of ‘drug control’ has been, I’ll quote what I wrote on Sunday about the reasons for the INCB’s existence;

‘The International Narcotics Control Board has two functions; to make sure that people who might benefit from the therapeutic properties of these substances are able to get them and to limit the diversion of such medicines to illicit use. That’s my summary the full mandate can be read here’

The ‘success’ of that first function is spelled out by Mr Gohdse himself when he writes;

‘About 80 per cent of the world’s population has limited or no access to controlled substances; that means that in most countries many people are suffering unnecessarily.’

By his own hand, Mr Gohdse is saying that around 5.5 billion people are excluded from proper medical care and we can only speculate how many suffer serious long-term pain or even choose to permanently end their suffering because the INCB has been so ‘successful’ in performing its role.