100 years of global drug control

Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) Tom Blickman
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

CND2012-opiumThis year the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first international opium convention. What the UN drug czar said about these 100 years, is it a success story? Did NGO delegates agree with him? What is the significance of the speech Evo Morales, president of Bolivia made at the CND? What are the chances of the drug reform movement in Latin-America? What is the impact of CND resolutions in general? The HCLU's video advocacy team attended the CND and ask these burning questions. Watch the new movie to learn the answers from Yuri Fedotov, Gil Kerlikowske, Martin Jelsma, Damon Barret, Allen Clear and Mike Trace.

The 55th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) of 2012 featured a special official side event, Celebrating 100 years of the Opium Convention, to comemorate the signing of the Hague Opium Convention in 1912. The event was rather bland – as if nobody was really keen to celebrate anything – trying to outline the success of the international drug control system. By doing so, the official guardians of the system completely ingnored the negative consequences of the current UN drug control conventions and the obvious historical errors committed over the century.

The most obvious historical error was addressed on the first day of the CND by the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, concerning the 1961 UN Single Convention’s Article 49, which obliged parties to abolish the ancestral traditional practice of coca leaf chewing within 25 years. At the time that obligation was included on the basis of an unscientific and, with the benefit of hindsight, outright racist report. However, the attempt by Bolivia last year to correct that error was frustrated by a group of so-called “friends of the convention” headed by the United States and aided by misguided opinions of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). As a result, Bolivia decided to withdraw from the 1961 Convention and re-accede with a reservation on the coca leaf and its traditional uses.

Rather than correcting the error, the “friends of the conventions” preferred to keep the obligation to safeguard “the integrity” of an outdated convention, fearing that the initiative of Bolivia would open a Pandora’s box of countries trying to modernize the international drug control conventions. In stead, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) staged the celebration of 100 years of the international drug control system jointly with the US which tabled a resolution entitled One hundredth anniversary of the Opium Convention, notwithstanding growing discontent about the negative consequences of the system, which even the guardians of the system are forced to recognize to some extent.

The more the system is criticized, the more its most ardent defenders are uniting around their crumbling bastion trying to defend it, even when that means the flawed use of the statistics and rewriting the history of the past 100 years of drug control. The president of the INCB, Hamid Ghodse, once again repeated the erroneous figures on opium and reasons for opium reduction from the 2008 World Drug Report, which have already been exposed as a flawed attempt to rewrite history by TNI and IDPC.

Ghodse mentioned a record opium production of 41,000 metric tons in 1906/07, almost five times more than the global illicit opium production a century later. The number crunching might look impressive, but closer scrutiny reveals that it is based on a misrepresentation of the figures and on comparing apples with pears. Medicinal use of opium, for instance, was widespread, since opium was the only effective medicine available for many ailments. In the absence of affordable analgesics for common people opium was often used as a pain killer and also as household remedy for all kinds of familiar ailments such as diarrhoea, dysentery, cough relief, bronchitis, asthma, and against symptoms of cholera, malaria, and tuberculosis. It also helped to overcome tiredness, hunger, and cold. “In a climate marked by frequent and sometimes lethal dysentery, no remedy was more effective than opium,” according to Professor Frank Dikötter.

In order to compare production and consumption figures a century apart one should take into account that a lot of the use in the past is now replaced with other regular medicines and remedies to treat these diseases, such as antibiotics as well as synthetic opioids and other lighter painkillers, antipyretic analgesics including paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen. Opium was, as it were, the aspirin of the era. Every household would contain it, as a general cure-all and a treatment for cholera and other gastro-intestinal conditions, malaria, etc. It was later replaced by antibiotics, quinine, etc. Public health also increased significantly which made these complaints much less prevalent: sewerage, clean drinking water, cleaning products etc. According to the Aspirin Foundation approximately 35,000 metric tonnes are produced annually.

In other words, twisted logic is used to fabricate comparisons with higher opium production a century ago and presenting all opium use as problematic. Another question is how reliable the 1906/07 production figures are. They were based on a report of the Chinese delegation to the International Opium Commission (IOC) in Shanghai in 1909. These estimates were already challenged at the IOC itself. “The statistics in this report are of very little value,” according to an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), of January 8, 1910, about the report of the Chinese delegation. “They were challenged by the British delegates, with the result that the Chinese delegation has represented to the Government the necessity of obtaining more reliable data. The figures dealing with the growth of the poppy and the consumption of opium are, as a rule, nothing more than rough estimates or mere expressions of opinion.”

Significantly, the Netherlands – the country where the 1912 Opium Convention was negotiated and signed – opted to not join the celebrations. As they say: “silence speaks volumes”.

See also: The Future of the Conventions, TNI/IDPC side event at the 55th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.