INCB criticises decriminalisation of drug use in Latin America and say nothing about Europe

The most recent report by the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) criticises Mexican, Brazilian and Argentinean governments for decriminalising the possession of drugs for personal use. The report considers that the measure “poses a threat to the coherence and effectiveness of the international drug control system and sends the wrong message to the general public”.

The INCB is the independent and quasi-judicial organisation of the UN created in 1968 in charge of monitoring the implementation of the UN international drug control conventions.

The report warns that the movement for the decriminalisation of drugs, especially cannabis for personal use is increasing and that “regrettably” has enjoyed the support of former high-level politicians who have publicly expressed their support for this measure. It finishes by stating concern about this trend because it can undermine national and international efforts to combat drug abuse and illicit drug trafficking.

Nevertheless, these apprehensions have been strongly criticised by various internationally recognised institutions such as the Transnational Institute (TNI), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Global Fund. According to WOLA and TNI, the Board’s criticisms go beyond its powers and constitute interference in internal affairs. Both organisations are NGOs formed by professionals with experience in drug control policies.

In August 2009 the Supreme Court of Argentina declared unconstitutional the punishment for possession of cannabis for personal use. Mexico decriminalised the possession of drugs for personal use, while in 2006 Brazil replaced prison sentences for detoxification treatment and educational programmes. The Drug and Democracy programme coordinator of TNI Martin Jelsma says that the interference of the Board in the highest judicial Argentinean authority is “arrogant” and adds that the INCB has neither the mandate nor the expertise to challenge the decision.

The Board ignores the experience of countries like Portugal where possession of any drug for personal use was decriminalised in 2001 and since then heroin use has declined. In addition, Portugal has the lowest European rate of marijuana use in people over 15 and had experienced a decline in illegal drug use since the decriminalisation of drug use and personal possession. The report does not mention any of this in its European chapter. But it does mention the conclusions of a committee commissioned by the government of the Netherlands that showed their drug control policy, broadly known for being liberal, is achieving its objective of limiting damage to the health of drug users. Why does the INCB criticise liberalisation of Latin America drug policy and say nothing about European countries?

The INCB also ignores the capacity of sovereign states to tackle the drug problem with alternative tools to those proposed by them. Global Fund says that the legislation has failed to prevent illegal drug availability and there is no evidence that the increase in the strictness of law reduces the prevalence of drug use.

In last year’s report, the INCB criticised that Bolivia still allows the use of traditional coca tea and chewing. In 2008 Bolivia enshrined in its Constitution that the coca leaf is part of its cultural heritage. Bolivian President Evo Morales has called publicly to remove coca leaf from the list of drugs and asserted that UN has made “a historic mistake on the coca leaf that in its natural state is not a drug”. In a speech given in front of an UN conference in March 2009 Morales chewed coca leaves and lifting a handful said that “the coca leaf is not cocaine, is part of a culture that is not narcotic”.

The initiatives undertaken by the governments of Argentina, Mexico and Brazil are in the same direction of Portugal where it has been found that a less repressive legal framework has helped to reduce drug use. But that is not all, the undesirable effects associated with drug consumption such as transmission of diseases like HIV and crime have experienced a decrease as well.