The United Nations agency in charge of monitoring compliance with international drug control agreements released a report urging countries around the world to improve efforts to prevent and treat problematic drug use, underscoring a continuing shift away from traditional counternarcotics policies.
The annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), released on March 1, places a heavy emphasis on the importance of ensuring access to treatment for people with drug use disorders, even going so far as to describe drug disorder treatment as a "human right."
"As parties to the international drug control treaties, Governments are required to provide treatment services to people affected by addiction," the report states.
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According to the INCB, spending on drug dependence treatment, "is much less expensive than criminal justice interventions," and yields a strong return on investment when factoring in savings on healthcare costs and the justice system.
However, the report notes that several obstacles can hider citizens' access to drug treatment.
In Latin America, where less than 10 percent of the population has access to such services, a lack of resources and experienced personnel has inhibited the availability of these programs. And in the United States, "limited access to health insurance ... continues to impede the management of addiction and the provision of adequate care and treatment."
Legalization Still a No-Go
The INCB's intense focus on treatment and prevention of drug use in this year's report stands in contrast to past versions, which have generally called for strict adherence to the status quo. But on the issue of drug legalization, the UN body still has not changed its long-held position: The practice violates international agreements.
In its report, the INCB reiterated its opposition to experiments with legalizing cannabis for recreational use in certain US states as well as in Uruguay, which last year became the first nation in the world to establish a legalized and regulated recreational market for the drug.
The UN body notes that the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs "restricts the use of controlled narcotic drugs to medical and scientific purposes and that legislative measures providing for non-medical use are in contravention of that Convention."
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The INCB also expressed skepticism surrounding Bolivia's announcement last year of plans to increase caps on the legal cultivation of coca, which InSight Crime has noted could contribute to a small bump in cocaine availability.
"The Board is concerned that those developments have had a negative impact on the Government’s ability to control the availability of coca leaves for domestic traditional consumption and have increased the risk of coca leaves being diverted for use in the illicit manufacture of cocaine," the report states.
Opioid Crisis in the Spotlight
The INCB's emphasis on treatment and prevention measures is likely related in part to what it describes as "an opioid and fentanyl crisis of unprecedented proportions" in North America that has seen echoes in other regions such as Australia and Europe.
The opioid crisis has contributed to a massive increase in drug overdose deaths in the United States in recent years. As authorities have cracked down on companies irresponsibly over-prescribing opioid drugs, many users have shifted to illicit substances with similar effects like heroin and fentanyl. This, in combination with other factors, has generated conflict between crime groups for control of key production and trafficking hubs in countries like Mexico.
The INCB also voiced "growing concern about methamphetamine production, trafficking and abuse in North America," an issue US authorities have also warned about. And it reported that "cocaine use has been increasing in North America and cocaine-related overdose deaths have increased since 2010."
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While the UN body has previously supported "non-punitive" approaches to drug control, this year's report may be particularly aimed at the United States, the world's largest drug market.
Rather than committing more resources to drug abuse treatment and prevention, the administration of US President Donald Trump has opted for a strategy of tough talk that has not been backed up by additional funding or smart hiring for key positions. The INCB may be attempting to encourage the United States to take a more proactive role in developing alternative policies for drug control -- something that is unlikely to happen despite the intense focus Trump has placed on the issue.