Is the INCB dangerous to your health?

Five ways the UN's drug watchdog fails on health and human rights
Daniel Wolfe, director of the International Harm Reduction Development Program, Open Society Foundations
Tuesday, March 5, 2013

raymond-yans2In what has become a chilling annual exercise, the UN's drug watchdog the International Narcotics Control Board released its annual report today. The INCB describes itself as a "quasi-judicial" group of experts charged with monitoring compliance with international drug control treaties, but the report's drug war bias and egregious omissions makes us wonder who is judging the judges.

The INCB is supposed to ensure balance in drug control and the availability of legal medicines used to treat addiction and relieve pain. The INCB report, though, takes a notably less kind, more punitive approach to drugs -- stressing enforcement over health, and failing to note the many ways in which the countries it visited last year could improve responses to drugs and drug addiction.

Here are 5 ways that this year's INCB's report fails on health and human rights:

Failure #1: No criticism on bans on essential medicines

The INCB references laboratories in Latvia that are producing methadone, and says that the medicine is illegally exported to Russia. They neglect to mention that methadone and buprenorphine -- considered essential by the World Health Organization and used to reduce heroin injection and HIV -- are banned in Russia, despite an AIDS epidemic in that country concentrated among people who use drugs. International experts, including those at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that is the INCB's institutional home, are unanimous in their assessment that methadone and buprenorphine are critical for the treatment of those dependent on heroin. The INCB should be speaking up against the Russian ban, but instead remains silent.

Failure #2: Groundless criticism of medical marijuana

The INCB raises concern about medical marijuana practices in Canada. Even by the low standards of previous reports -- the INCB has expressed concern that celebrities smoking pot in movies and products containing hemp send the wrong message -- this criticism of marijuana prescribed to relieve pain and stimulate appetite seems petty and off base. The INCB provides no grounds for its criticism of Canada, no case law, and no footnotes.

Failure #3 No scrutiny of what countries mean by drug treatment

The INCB report notes that 220,000 people in China were in "compulsory treatment centers" at the end of 2011. What they don't mention that these centers are forced labor camps that violate international law by arbitrarily detaining people and abusing them inside, and that they offer no form of treatment shown to be effective. Human Rights Watch, for example, has documented severe sexual and physical abuses of people who use drugs inside Chinese centers. Here again the INCB is at variance with the UN, since the head of UNODC and eleven other agencies have issued a call to close centers like those in China.

Failure #4: No comment on the deaths of those in locked ward "rehabilitation" centers, or the need to take the locks off

The INCB reported that they had visited Peru in May, but failed to mention that their visit to Peru came only months after 14 drug users burned to death in a locked treatment facility. Only days before their visit, more Peruvians perished in another fire in a religious "therapeutic community." The Peru fires were not unusual -- patients in drug treatment in Russia, Kazakhstan and other countries have also burned to death as they struggled against locked doors and windows.

A visit to Brazil offered the INCB another chance to comment on substandard drug "treatment." Again, the INCB missed its opportunity. While noting the rise of concern about crack use in Brazil, the INCB said nothing about government funding of religious therapeutic communities like those in Peru or the forcing of crack users into treatment, a move that the federation of psychologists has criticized as bad clinical practice and a rights violation.

Failure #5: No criticism of executions in the name of drug control

The INCB visited Saudi Arabia in 2012, a country they commended for "commitment" in the fight against drug abuse and trafficking. Unmentioned is Saudi Arabia's aggressive use of the death penalty for drug offenders. According to a recent report from Human Rights Watch, the country executed at least 16 persons in the months of 2012 preceding the INCB's visit, many for drug offenses.

The UN Human Rights Committee, and multiple other international experts, have condemned the use of the death penalty for any drug offense. As reports by Harm Reduction International have made clear, execution of alleged drug offenders is contrary to international law and among the most egregious effects of the drug war.

It doesn't have to be this way. The INCB report stands in stark contrast to that of another UN watchdog -- Juan Mendez, the Special Rapporteur on Torture -- also issued this week. After research and hearings with experts from around the world, Mendez noted at a March 4 meeting of the Human Rights Council that drug detention centers were guilty of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and that bans on methadone and buprenorphine were also inhuman and degrading.

The message that health and alleviation of suffering are a critical part of a global response to drugs is one that the INCB needs to heed -- and reflect -- in their annual reports. Otherwise, they risk reducing themselves to nagging anti-drug warriors who have failed in their responsibilities and lost sight of the core commitments affirmed in the drug treaties and UN mandate they claim to uphold.

Daniel Wolfe, director of the International Harm Reduction Development Program, Open Society Foundations. This OpEd was first published in the Huffington Post