The INCB (Inernational Narcotics Control Board), a panel of experts based at the UN, released their annual report serving to reaffirm that when it comes to international drug policy, logic and common sense continue to be thrown out of the proverbial window. The report emphasises “the importance of universal implementation of international drug control treaties by all states” and lets it be known that the board “deeply regret the developments at the state level in Colorado and Washington, in the United States, regarding the legalization of the recreational use of cannabis: Legal marijuana in Colorado, Washington, as well as Uruguay, breaches the international drug treaties in an unprecedented way, and the INCB are clearly disappointed with this direct challenge to the international prohibitionist consensus”.

This latest attempt to grant legal and institutional weight to international drug policy has evoked much criticism. Danny Kushlick, head of external affairs at Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a think tank that campaigns for legal regulation of drugs in the UK and abroad, gave a scathing critique of the INCB, claiming it “defends treaties that are fraught with scientific and legal inconsistencies” and that with its latest report it “appears to have signed its own death warrant”.

The INCB’s disappointment with the legal regulation of cannabis appears to be based on little besides the fact that it doesn’t conform to the International Treaties that brought the board into being. They cite “increased public health costs”, noting that government revenue from the legal sale of alcohol and tobacco is less than the economic and health costs of their abuse. Yet both tobacco and alcohol are considerably more toxic and addictive than cannabis. Moreover when you consider that the people of Colorado and Washington have democratically expressed an understandable desire to have safe, regulated access to the drug, the INCB’s stance looks like yet another attempt to grasp to a policy that’s rapidly losing credibility. Such stubborn defense of the drug war, the most consistent characteristic of which has been human suffering, has come to define the INCB.

One doesn’t have to look far to see examples of this. Their report from the previous year was heavily criticised for overlooking human rights violations relating to punishment for drug offences, particularly in Saudi Arabia. The body has long taken a position that is inconsistent with international norms. Last year they welcomed Vietnam’s drug treatment measures, despite a UN report raising serious human rights concerns with regards to the country’s drug treatment and detention centres. Regardless of this the INCB were swift to blast Denmark for introducing “drug consumption rooms” and in doing so continued their history of condemning methods proven to reduce overdoses and transmission of diseases. Indeed it is very revealing that “Harm reduction” was mentioned just once in the report. Reduction international estimates show that there are around 1,000 people executed for drug offenses each year, and that there are many preventable HIV and HIC incidents. The INCB’s suspect attitude with respect to these topics is perhaps what does most to damage its waning credibility.

The INCB, and indeed the unreasonable drug policy it aims to defend, continues to fail to account for the fact that people take drugs not because they are criminals but because they want to experience an altered state of mind. Sometimes this becomes destructive and harmful, and in this instance their drug usage amounts to a health problem. Any criminal elements however, have been manufactured and serve not to deter or protect but rather to stigmatize and punish. As Ann Fordham, the executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium concluded, “the entire UN drug control system needs to be rebalanced further in the direction of health rather than criminalization, and it is changing; the shift in various parts of the system is apparent already.” A much-welcomed move in this direction looks set to continue, in spite of the unwavering stance of the INCB.

BY: Joel Crawley