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March 7, 2008 -- Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Column: Closed Minds

International Anti-Drug Group As Open-Minded As A Growling Rottweiler

By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

According to what the media described as "a United Nations report released Wednesday" -- more on that description in a moment -- the soft treatment of celebrity drug offenders gives young people the impression that drug use is no big thing. Thus, it "could undermine wider social efforts at reducing demand for drugs."

So that's it. It's all because Robert Downey Jr. isn't in prison. If only a judge had done the right thing and sentenced Downey to life in San Quentin, young people would know drugs are bad. Chain Downey to five convicts and have him dig ditches all day while a fat sheriff spits chewing tobacco and makes jokes about Hollywood actors and every young person in the Western world will sit up straight, study hard and drink beer like decent folk.

It's an interesting theory. But not an original one. I first heard it several years ago.

I was in Istanbul, sitting on a patio and drinking some sort of Turkish fire water with a federal court judge from California. The judge was certain that if the courts were to make an example of a few celebrities, our troubles -- as Colonel Kurtz put it in Apocalypse Now -- would soon be over.

Interesting, I said, and took another sip of a drug that has killed far more people than all the illicit drugs combined. But what about the Chinese?

The judge was perplexed. What about them?

Well, I explained, every year since 1990, the Chinese government has marked the UN's International Day Against Drug Abuse with show trials of drug traffickers which end, as show trials usually do, with the defendants being convicted and sentenced to death. Then they shoot a bunch. This is widely publicized in the state media.

One can accuse the Chinese government of many things but being soft on drug offenders is not one of them. And yet, trafficking and abuse are rising steadily in China.

It seems to me, I told the judge, that if mass public slaughter doesn't do the trick, neither will sending Robert Downey Jr. to San Quentin. You will have to be much tougher -- tougher even than the Chinese -- for your theory to have any chance at working.

Perhaps Downey's execution could be preceded by a little waterboarding? Thumbscrews? Electric shocks?

That would be excessive, the judge conceded. He promised to reconsider his hypothesis.

Sadly, the United Nations is not so open minded. Or at least, the International Narcotics Control Board is not.

That "UN report" mentioned above is actually the work of the INCB, a UN agency. That may sound like a trivial distinction but it actually matters a great deal.

Some branches of the UN are quite sane about drugs. Speak to the UN's World Health Organization, for example, and you'll hear that strict enforcement often does more harm than good and that harm reduction programs -- syringe exchanges, safer injection sites and so on -- are an effective way to reduce the spread of HIV and other harms associated with illicit drug abuse.

For the most part, the WHO follows the evidence. That's what you expect of a scientific organization staffed by scientists.

You'll never hear anything like that from the INCB. The board was created by prohibitionists to be prohibition's guard dog. For the most part, the INCB ignores the evidence. That's what you expect of an ideological organization staffed by politically vetted hacks.

Consider the INCB's statement about the damage done by courts going soft on celebrity drug offenders. It made headlines around the world. "Terrifying Cost of Not Jailing Druggie Celebs" blared a British tabloid.

But what evidence is there that courts let celebrities off lightly? Or that such treatment encourages drug use? There's none in the report.

At a press conference in London, one of the INCB's hacks was asked to substantiate this serious allegation with, at a minimum, some examples of courts going soft on celebs. The INCB's man, reports The Guardian, "was unable to come up with a single example. He suggested instead that we ask our colleagues in the media."

A Guardian columnist was amazed. "Why did the UN report highlight this when they had apparently done no research on the subject and come up with no statistics?"

Allow me to answer: Because it's not a "UN report." It's an INCB report. And the INCB is as open-minded and intellectually rigorous as a growling Rottweiler.

In 2006, Stephen Lewis, the Canadian who was the UN's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, stated publicly that Vancouver's "InSite" safer injection facility had helped to reduce the spread of HIV -- a conclusion supported by peer-reviewed scientific studies. The INCB went crazy.

According to a report by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the very next day Lewis got "an angry telephone call from the INCB Secretariat and a promise that the board would write to the Secretary-General (of the UN) to urge that Lewis be censured for support of 'opium dens.'

In that letter, the INCB president expressed disbelief that 'any officer of the United Nation (sic) could have made such statements,' and demanded that Lewis recant."

It wasn't that Lewis was wrong about the evidence, mind you. It was that what Lewis said was heresy.

Thus, it was no surprise that in the report released Wednesday, the INCB's silly comments about celebrity drug users were followed by an attack on InSite and other Canadian harm reduction programs. The federal government must shut it all down, the INCB insisted.

Why? Neither science nor law leads to that conclusion. No, this is dogma.

The INCB is a ridiculous organization. If it stood alone, the media would pay it no attention. But because it bears the imprimatur of the UN, the INCB issues "UN reports" and its utterly stupid demands -- from jailing celebrities to scrapping harm reduction -- are publicized and taken seriously around the world.

Remember that when Stephen Harper closes InSite and claims he's only doing what the United Nations wants.

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