War on drugs 'has enriched cartels'

Campaigners criticise draft paper for not including harm reduction tactics

United Nations member states are set to paper over their differences today and sign up to 10 more years of the much-criticised "war on drugs" at a drugs summit in Vienna. A draft policy declaration tabled at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs last night did not mention the innovation that campaigners had hoped for: "harm reduction" strategies such as needle exchange programmes to prevent the spread of HIV, or even legalisation and regulation to help erode the power of traffickers and drug lords.

The summit comes in the wake of high-profile indictments of the UN's drug strategy. A European Commission report published on Tuesday said the strategy had not made any progress in cutting supply and demand.

Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said that "measurable progress" had been made.

Opening the Vienna talks, he said addiction to illicit drugs had "stabilised" in the past few years but admitted that a "dramatic unintended consequence" of the battle to stamp out the illicit trade was that drug cartels had become so rich they could destabilise impoverished and vulnerable nations in Africa and South America.

"When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties, in a word, power, the consequences can only be highly destabilising" he said.

"While ghettoes burn, West Africa is under attack [by Latin American traffickers transporting cocaine to Europe], drug cartels threaten Central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions".

World markets were still supplied with about 1,000 tons of heroin, 1,000 tons of cocaine and large volumes of marijuana, cannabis resin and synthetic drugs, Mr Costa said. He warned against the legalisation of drugs – which has attracted renewed support –as "a dangerous wager".

"Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled – they are controlled because they are harmful. The fact that certain unlawful transactions are hard to control does not mean that they should be made legal."

Britain and other EU countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Romania, Portugal, Spain, Finland and Slovenia, will file reservations on the draft declaration, diplomats indicated.

Alan Campbell, who led the UK delegation, said that the British delegates were disappointed with the outcome.

"We will of course be signing up to the declaration, but there are a number of criticisms we will be making and I think making them quite clear."

Britain had supported the inclusion of harm reduction strategies in the document and Mr Campbell said he did not think the emerging strategy was " bold enough".

Campaigning groups including Human Rights Watch and the International Aids Society said the proposed political declaration lacked "critically important measures for treating and stemming the spread of HIV".

Craig McClure, from the International Aids Society, said: "This political declaration fails public health. The international commitment to fight HIV, the denial of any reference in the declaration to life-saving harm reduction programmes is unacceptable and unconscionable."

At a protest organised by the human rights organisation, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, activists carrying placards which read "The war on drugs destroys lives" and "Drug law isolates" greeted delegates as they arrived at the summit. Fake $1,000 bank notes with Mr Costa's picture under the inscription, "The United Nations of Prohibition" were also handed out.

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