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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 26th June 2012

I’m conducting an experiment today. I’m going to try a sort of live-blogging about World Drug Day. That is, I’m trying a sort of pseudo-live blogging because I’m going to be writing throughout the day but only posting the finished piece.

What led to me trying this was the lack of Google News results for ‘world drug day’ at 0830 GMT. During the course of today there will be a number of documents released and a number of press conferences and statements so I thought it might be interesting to see if media attention grows.

First, some background. The UN has held a ‘World Drug Day’ for some years. It is also the day on which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) publishes its annual World Drug Report (WDR).

I’ve written about the WDR every year since 2006 (first as a briefing for colleagues at the Alnwick Garden, then in the Phantastica section of this site and, last year, in this blog entry 23rd June) but it has become increasingly difficult to find anything to say about it because it, overall, is the same report every year.

The WDR is not released until 1400 GMT but the Alternative World Drug Report (AWDR) from the organisation ‘Count the Cost’ has already been released.1 The point of the AWDR seems to be to ask the questions the WDR doesn’t and, perhaps, its release ahead of the WDR is in the hope that the media might ask some of these same questions at the launch of the WDR.

The other event that has already happened is that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement to mark what the statement calls ‘International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking’2. That is the full title for ‘World Drug Day’ giving an interesting example of how the UN struggles between being a bureaucratic organisation and engaging with the public.

The Secretary-General’s statement starts off well enough by pointing out all the problems caused by the illegal drugs trade though he does attribute these to the drugs themselves rather than their criminal status.

But you have to wonder if he thought about what he was signing when it says ‘Illicit drugs and related criminal networks undermine the rule of law. And the impunity with which they go about their business…’ So, 51 years since the 1961 Single Convention set out to create a ‘drug free world’, and after spending billions of dollars every year, the UN is officially saying that the criminals who supply these substances are able to act with impunity.

That, for me, is the key feature of this statement. Others have concentrated on the similarity between the call for ‘more of the same’ when it comes to enforcement and the way an 'addict' continues to pursue their addiction thinking things will be better this time.

Incidentally, it is fashionable for prohibitionists to deny that the 1961 convention wanted to create a drug free world. They go very quiet when you cite UN documents using that exact phrase. That should mean they stay rather quiet today because the exact words used by Ban Ki-Moon are;

‘The drug, crime and corruption conventions of the United Nations form a solid basis for global solutions to these challenges. Together, these instruments offer a balanced approach to halt trafficking [emphasis added]’

So, the UN is still pursuing the notion of halting trafficking and that can only be achieved by creating a drug-free world. Even reformers accept that a regulated market would leave some room for illegal activities. ‘Halting’ trafficking is a completely unobtainable goal.

The other early piece of news, and I hope it is an unfortunate coincidence rather than some sick attempt to celebrate World Drugs Day, is that a 21 year old man has been sentenced to death in the UAE after selling 20g of cannabis to an undercover policeman.3 I intentionally omitted to write ‘British’ when describing the man because there are plenty of people of all nationalities suffering exceptional punishments in the name of the UN bid to ‘halt trafficking’.

1130 GMT now and there have been a few more news stories. President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan issued a statement marking the day that includes a call for everybody to help to make ‘Pakistan a drug free society’4

There have also been two more reports published. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has published ‘Cannabis production and markets in Europe’.5 This is a long report that, on first pass, looks to be an attempt to bring the whole story of cannabis from its earliest history to the present day into one document. I’ll set that aside for later reading.

And the Global Commission on Drug Policy has launched its new report ‘The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS’.6 The sub-title ‘How the Criminalization of Drug Use Fuels the Global Pandemic’ gives an idea of what this short report is about.

1200GMT brings the ‘Statement of the Executive Director UNODC on International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking’7 from Yury Fedotov to ready for the launch of the WDR. Mr Fedotov promises a shorter WDR ‘more evidenced based’ so, maybe, even he is getting fed up with saying the same thing every year. We’ll have to see when the report itself is published.

Mr Fedotov has a tendency to tell the truth without meaning to. Thus he notes the increase in opium production in 2011 over 2010 and says this was due to plant disease in 2010. I’m not sure he wanted to admit that opium production is, mostly, determined by nature rather than the massively expensive UN led interdiction effort.

He also notes that the growth in ‘legal highs’ involves substances not covered by the Single Convention but does not call for them to be brought into the convention. If the convention was effective, why wouldn’t you want to extend its reach to these novel chemicals?

1530 GMT and the WDR is released8 and plenty of news stories about it are appearing. The ‘shorter’ report is still 112 pages and with everything else going on today I’m going to leave it for another time before looking at too much detail.

There is, though, one point I wanted to mention but I will need to do a bit of number-crunching to develop it fully and I can’t do that now. This is the statement in the Executive Summary that farm gate prices for opium that rose in 2010 in both Afghanistan and Myanmar following the former’s disease problems continued to rise in 2011 even though crop yields recovered. That average retail prices for heroin remained unchanged is attributed to substitution of other substances.

My interest is in trying to marry production and consumption estimates. For a number of years, total production far outstripped estimated consumption leading to the idea that someone was holding large stocks. If that were true the 2010 production problem should not have produced any shortage and, therefore, no effect on farm-gate prices. It looks to me, on first pass, as though the UNODC estimates are completely unreliable. If that is true for opium and heroin than is it also true for other substances?

For today, one more comment on the WDR. The Executive Summary says;

‘Latest available data indicate that there has been no significant change in the global status quo regarding the use, production and health consequences of illicit drugs’

That could have been written;

‘After another year of spending huge sums of money and destroying the lives of many thousands of people whose only crime is to not see the difference between legal and illegal when it comes to psychoactive substances, the UNODC can report that it has not made any impact on the use of the illicit substances covered by the Single Convention.’


1.The Alternative World Drugs Report Count the Costs 26th June 2012
2.International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking United Nations 25th June 2012 
3.UAE death sentence for British man on 'drugs charge' 25th June 2012
4.Pak to eradicate illicit drugs culture: Zardari  Pakistan Observer 26th June 2012
5.Cannabis production and markets in Europe EMCDDA 26th June 2012
6.The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS Global Commission on Drug Policy 26th June 2012
7.Statement of the Executive Director UNODC on International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking UNODC 26th June2012
8.2012 World Drugs Report UNODC 26th June 2012 


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