THE ENCOD BULLETIN ON DRUG POLICY IN EUROPE
NR. 40 APRIL 2008
LESSONS FROM VIENNA
Without contradictions, life would be impossible. A situation where only one truth prevails without ever being challenged becomes unbearable. Those who defend this truth will ignore reality, become arrogant and humiliate those who dare to challenge them. This is the fate of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, whose task it is to legitimate the universal war on drugs. On the other hand, those who oppose this war can only gain in credibility, strength and determination when they expose the lies upon which it is based.
Maybe the most important lesson that can be drawn from the events in Vienna (ENCODs Drug Peace Days from 7 to 9 March and the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs from 10 to 14 March) is that no help from above will be forthcoming. If we want a different drug policy, we must not only speak but also act, combine political activism with innovative, practical solutions for people in need. This is the only way to empower a movement of citizens aimed at bringing an end to a policy that invests billions in useless repression instead of education and health.
The Drug Peace March to the Vienna International Centre, the seat of the UNODC, was, with 400 participants, above all a symbolical gesture. But with every step we took over the Danube river bridges, we knew that millions of people, who for various reasons could not make it to Vienna, were marching with us. Our footsteps were made heavier by the tragedies that occur daily because of drug prohibition, and by the time we reached the UN building, it became clear that the delegates who would meet there the week after were in reality only a tiny minority whose crimes are a way to protect its privileges. Of course, many more people should be in attendance next time. With a better planned publicity and press campaign, as well as more effective communication we should be able to get people out of their chairs to stand up against the lies that justify the war on drugs.
Those who lack inspiration to do so had plenty of opportunities to motivate themselves at the Drug Peace Conference that took place in the auditorium C of the Vienna University on Saturday 8 and Sunday 9 March. In 7 sessions of 2 hours each, the speakers presented the audience with their latest findings on the reasons why drugs are prohibited as well as on the benefits of a world in which they would no longer be.
Peter Webster (The Psychedelic Library) started off by explaining how psychedelic drugs may have played a decisive role in the evolutionary process from ape to man. First of all religious, and later political authorities have used drug prohibition to deliberately activate a collective xenophobic instinct in the population, a natural reflex to define and exclude “the outsider”. Today, drug prohibition is nothing else but a tool to control the world, a dogmatic basis for policies that repeatedly fail to meet their declared objectives. As long as drugs are generally conceived as an external threat, there is little hope for improvement. In the end, the experience of unity, of oneness of all life, may be the only effective antidote to the xenophobic instinct that lends prohibitionist policy such power over the general public.
Clifford Thornton (Efficacy) developed his theory on the war on drugs as being based on three pillars: greed, fear and overt racism. Greed is found among most people who deal in drugs, but also among those who fight them, either as doctors, policemen or politicians: in the past 4 decades, almost 1 trillion dollars have been spent on drug related law enforcement in the USA alone. Fear is spread by those who exaggerate the dangers of drugs, but deliberately ignore the basic reasons why people wish to take them: to increase positive experiences or reduce negative ones. And overt racism is what the war on drugs comes down to in practical terms: for instance in the US, where black people make up only 12 % of the population, they account for more than 50% of the prison population, 2/3 of whom are serving drug related sentences. If the white population were affected by drug prohibition in the same way, it would not last long before a public outcry would demand its immediate end. But in the present situation, money is spent on repression instead of education and welfare, so a group of people are deliberately held in a corner where they have little alternative but to continue in disruptive lifestyles.
Overt racism seems also to be behind the declarations of both UNODC’s Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa and International Narcotics Control Board president Philip Emafo, who in the week leading up to the CND meeting called upon the Bolivian and Peruvian governments to prohibit the traditional use of coca leaves, claiming that this could be considered as a form of drug dependency. Bolivian anthropologist Beatriz Negrety Condori explained how these statements are in fact an insult to indigenous peoples who have consumed coca leaves at least for the past 5.000 years. For the original inhabitants of the Andes, coca leaves are not only a food supplement, an energy source and a medicine, but most of all a central element in their social relations and cultural identity. Current Bolivian president Evo Morales has started an active policy to support the industrialisation of coca leaves into beneficial products. If the coca leaf would be taken off the list of prohibited drugs, it could become an option for sustainable development instead of what it is now, a cause of continuous violence in the Andean region.
If the UN drug officials have no problem in provoking governments, then what about the chances of citizens’ associations being taken seriously on the highest levels of the drug debate? Virginia Montañes and Joep Oomen (ENCOD) described the perspectives of the so-called “consultation with civil society” that has been recently implemented by the United Nations as well as the European Union, in an effort to open up the discussion to voices who represent non-governmental actors in the drug field. The agenda of these meetings is imposed by the UNODC and a small clique of (prohibitionist) NGOs that have close relationships to this office. No representatives of producers of cannabis, coca or opium are present in these consultations, and almost no grassroots organisations. The way the meetings are organised ensures that no essential questions can be dealt with. ENCOD may continue to attend these meetings just to know what is going on, but we should not expect too much of them either. Only by building a critical mass of public opinion and determination concerning concrete practical solutions to urgent demands can we establish true civil society alternatives to the current, higly cost-ineffective drug policies.
One of these alternatives was presented by Martin Barriuso, of the association Pannagh in Bilbao. With 230 registered members, 60 % of whom use cannabis for therapeutical purposes, Pannagh is able to produce good quality cannabis for a fair price and still pay taxes, overhead costs such as office space and utilities, not to mention a decent salary to Martin, etc. Spanish legal authorities have accepted the existence of this and other associations formed by adults who grow cannabis for personal use. Cannabis Social Clubs are a health promoting, crime preventing initiative that is not in violation with the UN drug conventions. These Conventions do not refer to personal consumption – it is the national governments that may decide to prohibit or regulate this. In all European countries where personal consumption of cannabis is not prosecuted, people could start up Cannabis Social Clubs. One of these countries could very well be the Czech Republic, which according to Bushka Bryndova, is on the brink of modifying the laws for personal consumption of cannabis under pressure from an increasing acceptance of the phenomenon by the population.
Ways to cultivate cannabis that can be tolerated by authorities are especially interesting for those who use it for medicinal purposes. Dr. Kurt Blaas from Vienna described the history and applications of medical cannabis for a long list of health problems. Especially its properties to improve the immune system and appetite do not need further scientific evidence. Of course synthetic cannabis like sativex, dronabinol and marinol is now licensed in various European countries, and new products are being developed. In the Netherlands, a company is even growing herbal cannabis for official sale to patients in the Netherlands and Italy. However, the cheapest and easiest solution remains to be homegrown cannabis, and it will be a question of time before local judges start to understand this situation.
The presentation by Raimondo Pavarin (drug researcher from Bologna) helped to neutralise some myths about the harm of cannabis. In his studies he has found no basis for the claim that cannabis could be a gateway to other drugs with higher risk for negative health effects. Also there is no risk for overdose or increased mortality. His colleague Peter Rausch (Nektar.at) explained that without the function of endocannabinoids (active types of cannabis derivatives that human beings have naturally inside their bodies) we could not exist, since they help in regulating our ability to move physically, to relax, to stimulate appetite and creativity, as well as to regulate our memory and general mood. According to Peter it is only a question of time before cannabis will be acknowledged as a solution to several problems that affect the health and wellbeing of people, and this will end the war on weed.
Something similar might happen to ibogaine, the active element in iboga, which is found in the root of a plant that grows in central Africa. Iboga-experts Dana Beal, Boaz Wachtel and Patrick Venulejo explained the technical details on how this substance is capable of minimising withdrawal symptoms and cravings for drugs like nicotine, alcohol, but also opiates and cocaine. Its regulating effect on the level of dopamine in the brain (which are suppressed by various drugs) by introducing a growth factor (gdnf) is self reinforcing, whereas ibogaine leaves information in the body that tells it how to make even more gdnf.
Iboga therapies have resulted in successful treatment of addiction as well as disorders as a result of traumas resulting from psychological disorders. Still, there appears to be no interest from pharmaceutical companies to consider its introduction in the formal healthcare system. Most probably the reason is that it does not have any financial potential, since the true interest of our current healthcare system does not lie in solving addiction problems.
French journalist Jacques de Schryver explained his personal experience with iboga in France and Africa. These experiences taught him how to increase his ability to cope with bad luck, and recognise future perspectives even in difficult situations. Things feel new, clear and simple after taking iboga, which helps to amplify your personality, so it brings out both the good and bad things in oneself. It is not a drug that can be taken in a recreational way.
The direct impact of all this on the meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs that took place from 10 to 14 March was, as expected, limited. In the CND, decisions are made by consensus. This means that the USA, fully prepared to apply its economic power and to threaten countries that need development aid, can simply obstruct the formation of consensus and force opposing countries to have its way. Already before the meeting started, it was clear that the “consensus position” would consist of explaining the failure of the drug control strategy of the past ten years by calling it “containment”, and establishing a “year of reflection” to consider what decisions to take concerning the future in the CND meeting of 2009.
“During the five-day event, more and more groups of well-dressed men and women from all over the world could be seen standing and sitting in the corridors and near the coffee and sandwich stand, discussing papers, draft statements and resolutions, because the phase was nearing in which consensus had to be reached on each of these texts. Most of them concerned details, but among all these papers a few contained serious substance”, writes ENCODs representative to this meeting, Fredrick Polak from the Dutch Drug Policy Foundation in his report.
On his own, Polak tried his best to obtain a clear reply from UNODCs director Costa on the fact that although cannabis is openly available to adults in the Netherlands, its use is lower than in many other countries. Costa refused to answer, and later issued a statement in which he called the participants of a Drug Policy Reform Conference in the USA “lunatics” and urged civil society “to promote consumer boycotts against the fashion houses, recording companies, and sport enterprises that hire celebrities proud, rather than shameful, of their drug addiction.”
Now that UNODC is showing its real face toward concerned citizens who ask critical questions or just attend conferences, doing their best to help solving drug problems, it becomes clear that diplomatic efforts alone will not be enough to reform drug policies. We must do all we can to get the discussion on alternatives to prohibition on the agenda. Otherwise, most of the disastrous consequences of drug prohibition will continue, a little softened in some countries, but even more repressive in others.
Our plans for Vienna 2009 will depart from the conclusion that UNODC is in need of a true civil society opponent. While the United Nations reflects on their future course of action, ENCOD and its members will continue to act for peoples’ right to choose the substances they consider necessary to maintain or improve their wellbeing.
By Joep Oomen (with the help of Peter Webster)