High on Irrationality: At the UN Drugs Summit, It’s Time to Climb Down

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Apr 11 2016

High on Irrationality: At the UN Drugs Summit, It’s Time to Climb Down

April 12th, 2016

“A Drug-Free World—We can do it!” That’s the slogan that was agreed upon and adopted as the United Nations’ mandate when this body last convened in a major summit in 1998 to discuss global drug policy. Today, there is little question that global drug control has been misguided, overly punitive and largely ineffective, and has steered national drug policies in disastrous directions.

UN member states will come together again next week, from April 19-21 in New York, for another summit on drug control: UNGASS 2016. The question now is whether the UN can dispense with its old, unrealistic and harmful slogan and adopt a position in line with human rights and science.

The global drug control regime that member states must consider dates from 1961, and its age is showing. The UN drug conventions go out of their way to demonize drugs without reference to science—an approach ripe for abuse in punitive and discriminatory ways.

Marijuana is a prime example. It is described in the conventions as “particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill effect” and without any therapeutic value. That classification is not surprising in view of the ranting at UN meetings in the 1950s by the then-US drug czar, Harry Anslinger, that the “killer weed” marijuana was the “most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind” and its consumption was linked to immorality among “Negroes, Hispanics and jazz musicians”.

Though some countries have in recent years stepped away from the UN’s classification of marijuana, many retain laws that were influenced by the UN treaties. Across Africa and in much of Asia, in spite of acceptance of many traditional and cultural uses of marijuana, national laws are particularly harsh. In Kenya, for example, the law states that where an accused person can convince the court that the marijuana he or she possesses is for individual use only, the prison sentence can be up to 10 years—in all other cases, it’s up to 20 years.

Several countries have begun to recognize the misinformed view of the UN on marijuana regulation. Four states in the US and Uruguay have legalized recreational marijuana use by adults, and multiple US states and several countries around the globe have decriminalized possession. Some have changed marijuana policies because of concerns of racial discrimination in the enforcement of drug laws. For example, in the US at the state level, black people are about four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than their white counterparts. At the federal level, Hispanics represent two-thirds of the individuals arrested for marijuana violations. This is despite the fact that blacks, Hispanics and whites all use the drug at similar rates.

Others have implemented policy changes because many assertions—taken as fact—made about marijuana several decades ago are simply inconsistent with evidence from research.

Statements made about the addictive potential of marijuana amount to pure hyperbole when considered alongside the evidence. It’s true that about 9 percent of marijuana smokers will become addicted at some point in their life, but about 15 percent of alcohol drinkers and a third of tobacco smokers will become addicted over their lifetime. These developments highlight the fact that unless the UN takes a realistic look at its current drug regime, more and more countries will reject its guidance.

The UN should in theory provide a counterweight to the politicization of national drug policy. Instead, it has failed to challenge the ideology and junk science that fuel the demonization of drugs.

Methamphetamine is another example. It is heavily criminalized in most regions of the world. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime regularly bemoans the threat of methamphetamine use and encourages heavy law enforcement responses. But, from a chemical and a user perspective—as I have demonstrated in my own research and previously written about for The Influence—methamphetamine is nearly identical to the medicine Adderall. In fact, both drugs are approved in the US for treating attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Of course, Adderall is also used to treat narcolepsy and to facilitate wakefulness in soldiers, among many other things. Prohibiting methamphetamine by law inevitably creates a black market in which toxic adulteration of the substance is inevitable, leading to a great deal more danger than is caused by the substance itself.

Opioids are a third example. Over the past decade, the US and Canada have seen a steady increase in opioid-related fatalities. This phenomenon that has drawn attention as it shows up outside the urban environment, including in affluent white suburbs. But here too, the problem reflects a long history of bad decision-making, demonizing opioids and undermining their positive uses.

Lethal overdose on heroin alone is not common. The vast majority of these “overdoses” occur as a result of combining opioids with another sedative, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines. In other cases, unsuspecting people may ingest street opioids adulterated with other compounds, including fentanyl—an opioid considerably more potent than heroin. Again, black markets formed by punitive drug laws enhance the likelihood of these negative outcomes.

Read more from The Influence:

Three Concepts You Need to Grasp If You Want to Know Whether to Legalize Drugs (Yes, Even Heroin)

The Rehab Industry Needs to Clean Up Its Act. Here’s How.

Time for Reparations? How the Marijuana Industry Is Excluding People of Color

…and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

The US can and should learn lots from some European countries where a wider range of services are available for people who become dependent on opioids (who are a small percentage of all opioid users). Part of overdose prevention in Europe is ensuring easy access to therapies using opioid medicines such as methadone and buprenorphine. Methadone therapy has a long record of success, but in the US, it is still highly stigmatized, and many people who need it simply cannot get it. In Switzerland, Germany and a number of other countries, the few people who are not helped by other therapy are even allowed to receive heroin by prescription, safely, in controlled doses of known strength, administered in a health facility. Studies have demonstrated the efficacy of this measure. But most countries are far from that kind of pragmatic policy, and the UN, in the past, has rejected it too.

Globally, it is clear that punitive drug policies have been used to further marginalize marginalized groups. African-Americans, Afro-Brazilians, Roma in parts of Europe and poor Filipinos, among many others, are all arrested and incarcerated for drug law violations at rates disproportionate to their numbers in their respective societies. This shameful use of drug policy should be universally condemned, especially in light of the fact that many of the policies are based on false assumptions about drugs.

The UN’s founding principles include human rights, equitable development and human security. But it has sabotaged its ability to adhere to these principles with its tacit acceptance of ineffective and discriminatory drug policies and its rejection of pragmatic, scientifically sound approaches. The UNGASS 2016 drug summit presents an opportunity for this body to do the right thing by adopting a position on drugs that is consistent with evidence, decreases racial discrimination and enhances the humane treatment of people who use drugs.


Carl L. Hart is a columnist for The Influence. He is a professor (in psychiatry) at Columbia University. He is also the author of the book High Price: A neuroscientist’s journey of self-discovery that challenges everything you know about drugs and society. His last piece for The Influence was “Meth Is Virtually Identical to Adderall—This Is How I Found Out.” You can follow him on Twitter: @drcarlhart.

Joanne Csete is an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University.

  • Olmy Olm

    Not to mention that the current situation actually makes it harder for users to properly control their use: http://www.psychedelic-library.org/zinsubcl.htm

    “The larger culture condemns the illicit use of opiates more than any other drug. Popular mythology about the evils of the opiates and heroin, in particular, extends deep into the drug subculture itself. Many of the marihuana and psychedelic users in the DAC study do not recognize the possibility of controlled opiate use, even though they have identified and dispelled many of the larger culture’s myths about their own drugs of choice.

    The controlled opiate users in our study are painfully aware that they are seen as deviant. They tend to keep their use a closely guarded secret from everyone but their one or two dealers and other controlled opiate users. One of the researchers knew a woman he considered to be a reasonably close friend for several years, and although he had been previously involved in drug-related research, it was not until he became part of the DAC study that she felt free to “confess” that she had been a controlled heroin user all the while.

    The relationship of controlled opiate users to addict/compulsive opiate users is as fraught with dangers and
    difficulties as it is necessary. One way controlled users can assert their normalcy is to spurn and condemn junkies, but they must rely on junkies to obtain opiates. Addicts do not understand and are often threatened by controlled users’ peculiar relation to opiates. So, on the one hand, controlled users get poor quality opiates at great cost from junkies (“You’re always getting burned”), while on the other hand, they are repeatedly and seductively invited to become full-fledged members of the junkie subculture…”

  • Joe Minella

    I expect the U.S. representative to lead the anti-reform effort vigorously. I hope I’m wrong.

  • April Smith

    Such an important piece. Thank you Dr. Hart for your work. I loved your book!

  • medcannabis1

    Ending the the clearly racist law on the war on cannabis is the new civil rights in American politics. Our veterans who are suffering from PTSD can benefit and organizations such as ours Veterans for Compassionate Care http://Www.veteransforcompassionatecare.org would like to offer a transparent model for reducing opiate dependency and treating pain and suffering with the least toxic method of whole plant Botanical cannabis Therapeutics

  • This is a huge vindication of science over superstition and propaganda. Even if the US blocks progress, it will be easy to trace the resistance back to the responsible parties. (Also a vindication of free speech – a principle to which only the US and Norway subscribe.)

  • Maurice Dutton

    I believe there was a racial tone to both U.S & Australian drug policies that has now morphed onto Liberal minded people. Australia banned Opium firstly as a way of combating the Chinese influence & then during the Vietnam war, with the main counter culture again needing to be persecuted, the easiest way was through drug policy. It is interesting to note that the Vietnam war did more to promote drug use/ abuse than any other incident in modern history. I have also read Dr Carls book & recommend it.

    • Kevin Schmidt

      Nixon started the war on drugs so he could go after blacks for using cocaine and after college kids for using marijuana.
      He couldn’t overtly oppress their rights to protest, so he demonized crack cocaine and marijuana instead. Then he could arrest them on trumped up drug charges and look like a hero instead of a war criminal. Ironically, it was his anti-drug policy that caused the drug addiction epidemic.
      Now the CIA did it again with cheap heroin that they produce in Afghanistan, and in the process, created a global heroin epidemic.

  • painkills2

    While the treatment of addiction is becoming more science-based (now supported by the government), the treatment of pain is going very far (and very fast) in the other direction (also supported by the government). The opioid war will cause a small percentage of the chronic pain patient population to become addicted to unsafe, illegal drugs, so I hope the addiction industry is ready for this specific increase in their own patient population. After all, the chronic pain patient population is huge compared to the patient population for those who suffer from addiction, so even a small percentage will put a significant burden on an already overly-burdened system.

    And while many who suffer from addiction may benefit from psychiatric and alternative treatments (in combination with certain medications), the success rate for treating chronic pain patients with the same treatments is poor, at best. You may successfully treat a chronic pain patient for addiction, but then what? How do you treat pain without painkillers? The government and medical industry think that treating addiction with abstinence is no longer a good idea, and yet they’ve now come to the conclusion that treating chronic pain with abstinence is the way to go?

    Seriously, the hypocrisy is so thick, it’s suffocating. And I’m thinking that the medical industry better create a new type of clinic specifically for pain patients — I’d call it a Suicide Clinic.

  • Kenneth Anderson

    Imagine if the slogan was “A homosexual free world” or “A minority free world.” People have a right to use drugs even if they have physiological dependence. Imagine if we were beheading people for physiological dependence on caffeine or nicotine.

    • Kevin Schmidt

      Did you read the article? According to the laws of most countries, people do not have the right to use drugs. Of course they should have the right, which was the point of this article.

  • Gary Thompson

    Quote “adopt a position in line with human rights and science.” Some science gone deadly wrong, majority of harm is happening to non overdose patients. Chest compression for any respiratory emergency increases morbidity and mortality also increases drug use and abuse, dysfunctional civilization. Your pet eats any poison or drug the veterinarian will give respiratory assist and antidotes, not kill them with chest compression’s only nor full CPR! Why do we allow this to happen to our women and children?
    https://aliascpr.wordpress.com/2015/12/13/2015-ilcor-and-aha-references-opioid-od/

    Live human study Ontario, Canada majority of harm is happening to non drug overdoses. Chest compressions only specific to respiratory emergency contraindicated. Perpetuating a war on humanity on purpose. New program started Ontario, March 22 ‘Face the Fentanyl’ life threatening protocol.
    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/our-minds-have-been-poisoned-accepted-beliefs-bryant-mcgill-thompson

    My letter Emergency Medicine News Dec. 2015
    http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2015/12000/Letter__Flaws_in_Toronto_s_Opioid_Overdose.14.aspx

    Dr. Aaron Orkin co-author Can. J. Public Health 2013;104(3):e200-4
    http://journal.cpha.ca/index.php/cjph/article/view/3788

    My response posted by Small World Labs
    http://static.smallworldlabs.com/hsf/user_content/files/000/000/169/355cc02324a166bb8abf31174c141f69-cjph-20131043200-4.pdf
    Best Wishes & Don’t Forget to Breathe
    @GaryCPR

    • Maurice Dutton

      Just read your letter to the editor. Thank you for articulating what we at Harm reduction have been advocating for quite some time. The KISS principle applies to overdoses in that it is primarily a respiratory problem. If you allow the patient to have access to air albeit second hand from someone else lungs, you can stop a serious problem becoming a major one. We advocate teaching resuscitating & are agitating for free Naloxone where I live in far north Queensland.

      • Gary Thompson

        Just basic first aid knowledge, humankind has known since the invent of opium cause of death respiratory arrest (any poisoning or drug OD). Cardiac arrest is secondary to respiratory arrest, all cells tissues and organs have been severely damaged lack of oxygen. Patients blood chemistry has become toxic also from lack of oxygen. These clinicians and everyone else in harm reduction makes themselves sick mentally and physically (cognitive dissonance). Majority of harm is happening to non OD’s any respiratory emergency presents itself as similar to overdose. Rescue breathing is first line defense Naloxone is second line defense.

        Two case reports Naloxone ineffective in children, thousands more like this in the literature. Marcia L. Buck “Naloxone for the Reversal of Opioid Adverse Effects” Pediatric Pharmacotherapy. 2002;8(8)1-5 Read my moderated comment Medscape if you don’t have access see next hyperlink http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/441915_4
        Kept alive five days respiratory assist. Doctors pumping massive doses Naloxone into children with no affect?
        https://med.virginia.edu/pediatrics/wp-content/uploads/sites/237/2015/12/200208.pdf
        Ontario, Canada’s overdose training literature
        https://vimeo.com/68067103
        Listen 9:20 seconds signs of respiratory emergency, proves heart is beating
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlbkU5IK5Do
        See slide #23 https://www.cpso.on.ca/uploadedFiles/members/Meth-conf-POINT-PP.pdf

        Not placing blame change this protocol for the well being of all. Phone Public Health 416-392-0520 Mon-Fri 10-5pm They need counselling.
        @GaryCPR

  • Kevin Schmidt

    It’s not irrational when you look at from the perspective of the Global Corporate Elite, the US Government, and the pharmaceutical industrial complexy, all of whom profit greatly from keeping many drugs illegal.

    They use an unsustainable business model that profits off of the death, enslavement and misery of the people. They are truly sociopaths who must be disempowered ASAP, for the health and well being of everyone on the planet, and the planet as well.

    • Maurice Dutton

      Yes Kevin, I take it you have read the paper put out by a doctor in the states showing that Perdue, the makers of Oxycontin deliberately falsified the information about addictiveness to get people hooked on Opioids. Such un -ethical practices as supplying between 7 & up to 30 days supply of free Oxy’s to get people started. Will post the link if you want.

  • travelergtoo

    This article was brought to you by big Pharma. I remember when dope came into prominence in the 60s and the political backlash that followed.

  • Darius Hober

    First-EVERY article about the UN should be prefaced with the understanding that it functions as an elitist institution with 5 countries having “powers” and standing that the other Nations are not allowed to possess. For the UN to be taken seriously this issue has to addressed because it is these 5 countries that have been driving the Drug War since its inception. China, US, Russia, Britain, and France need to be stripped of “Veto Powers” and be held accountable as any other member. Every country and human being on the planet should protest this “tragedy of rights” and remove themselves from membership until this is corrected! It is these 5 countries that initiated the ‘Drug War” and have prepetuated violence over this economic act of warfare. Until journalists and people stand-up and demand democratic equality (as the UN promotes) within the institution itself-it is going to continue to ruin humanity rather than be a tool for collectively uplifting the world.
    Second-Freedom of Consciousness should be part of the platform of the UN. Every human should have the Freedom to not only “think” what they want but to also the Freedom to affect their thinking. This “affect” can come from ideas or books or from chemicals and implants. Every human should have automatically have the Liberty over all aspects of human consciousness.