Cheerleaders Against Drugs

The New York Times (US)
Tuesday, June 9, 1998

Manhattan is filled this week with world leaders attending a well-intentioned but misdirected United Nations conference on drugs. With drugs more plentiful and cheaper than ever worldwide, the leaders are mostly extolling failed strategies to combat the problem. Pino Arlacchi, the Italian official who heads the organization's International Drug Control Program, is promising to eliminate coca leaf and opium poppies, the basis of cocaine and heroin, in 10 years. Such claims get in the way of effective programs to reduce drug use.

Mr. Arlacchi's proposal, which is likely to be approved, would attempt to cut drug cultivation by bringing roads, schools and other development to drug areas. The notion sounds reasonable, and it is surely better to help farmers than to finance a militarized war on drugs, which has torn apart societies and built up some of the world's most repressive armies. But elements of Mr. Arlacchi's plan are unrealistic and harmful. Half the funding would supposedly come from drug-producing nations themselves, an unlikely prospect. Mr. Arlacchi would also make partners out of such abusive and unreliable governments as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the military in Myanmar.

While there is a place for crop substitution, law enforcement, interdiction and other programs to cut drug supply, these steps rarely deliver promised results. Where crop substitution has been successful, drug cultivation has simply moved next door.

The conference has seen a welcome increase in talk about the duties of drug-consuming countries, but its proposals are still tilted toward attacking supply. Studies show that treatment programs are far more cost-effective than efforts overseas. But it is politically safer to advocate fighting drugs abroad than treating addicts at home.

The U.N. kept off the program virtually all the citizens' groups and experts who wanted to speak. There is no discussion of some interesting new ideas such as harm reduction, which focuses on programs like needle exchanges and methadone that cut the damage drugs do. Like previous U.N. drug conferences, this one seems designed primarily to recycle unrealistic pledges and celebrate dubious programs.