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No harsh punishment can help prevent drug abuse and trafficking – UNODC head

The global war on drugs has lasted for decades, but new substances are being developed, drug-dealing schemes are multiplying, and violence persists. Is this a lost battle for humanity? We talk about this with Yury Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Yury Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, welcome to the show. It is great to have you with us. Mr. Fedotov, for more than half a century the world has been fighting a war on drugs and it is a fight that has the UN's support. However, you know better than anyone that drug use and production are as high as ever. New drugs are being introduced, and violence remains a serious side effect. I mean, 50 years of challenging the drug industry head on and there’s not a dent on it. Yet the U.N. is clear that its course is correct. How so?

Yury Fedotov: First of all, I would like to welcome you from Vienna, the headquarters of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and indeed it is very timely interview because we're launching our annual World Drug Report. Indeed, somehow United Nations is trying to support Member States in dealing with their old drug problem. I wouldn't use the word war on drugs, because it has never been used within the United Nations context, but at the same time we have to bear in mind that just in 2017, 170 million people have used drugs all over the world which is more or less stable statistics compared to previous years. There is a slow growth but this growth is proportionate to the growth of the world population. It means that the situation is dramatic but not as dramatic as it is presented by some media. Also there are some successes. And of course, there is an increase in production of all known types of drugs. I mean opium and opiates in Afghanistan, coca in Latin America, synthetic drugs everywhere in the world. But this growth is a little bit offset by the increase in seizures, by more efficient work of local law enforcement to prevent illicit drug trafficking. And that's why the overall statistics are more or less stable. 

SS: When Uruguay was legalising weed, you said that legalisation is not the answer to the world’s drug problem. Now some years have passed, marijuana is being made legal in Canada and is spreading across the American states - is this legalisation wave hindering the work of your organisation?

YF: I must say that so far the absolute majority of member states, states-parties to drug control conventions are firmly against legalisation of drugs. That is a position which has been confirmed recently in March at ministerial meeting here in Vienna. High level ministerial meeting adopted the ministerial declaration confirming the relevance of all three drug control conventions. Actually, there are some exceptions: Canada, Uruguay and some states in the United States, but so far this trend is not developing, and it relates to ban controlled substances, which is cannabis, and does not affect much the activities of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Also we're following very closely these trends with concern. And actually we have noted that in the United States, for instance, some states, where marijuana is legalised, it did not result in stopping the black market, it continues to exist. That is true.

SS: So, when talking about the drug issue, Mr. Guterres emphasizes prevention and treatment. And he was the one who presided over the decriminalisation reforms in Portugal which are hailed as a success. Does the fact that he's secretary general now mean the UN's stance on drugs will lean towards recommending decriminalisation?

YF:  The U.N. is promoting the global balanced approach to the world drug problem which combines a supply reduction and demand reduction, law enforcement and treatment, rehabilitation and prevention. That is true and we're concerned that only one in seven drug addicted persons have access to appropriate medical treatment globally, which is of course not appropriate at the current stage. As far as decriminalization [is concerned], many countries are promoting decriminalisation or rather depenalisation of offenses related to the possession of drugs in small quantities for personal use or some alternative to it. But it doesn't mean that we should be more lenient with criminals, with drug traffickers. 

SS: A group called the Global Commission on Drug Policy which lists Kofi Annan among its members says that punitive policies are only helping crime and it’s time for more humane approaches. Drug NGOs overwhelmingly support this idea. Leaders of countries that have been hurt by the drug wars are calling for a stop to prohibition. Is the UN support for these ideas only a matter of time - in ten years, twenty years? Or never? 

YF: First of all, I have to confess that I am not aware that the great majority of NGOs are supporting this approach. I meet with them regularly. In Vienna they meet within their NGO Committee, sitting regularly at the UNODC headquarters. And sometimes when I meet with them, they're arguing among themselves even more than with me. A great majority of NGOs are also opposed to any attempts to legalise drugs. But as it always happens, the majority is more silent than the minority. 

SS: What do you say to the argument that legalising drug use will hurt the illicit drug mafia more than fighting them? It seems to me you’re not convinced by this line of thought - why?

YF: Expectations that the legalisation  of cannabis could reduce the illegal market are unfortunately not confirmed. And we have more and more evidence that a drug market exists, especially moving drugs to schools, to other places where they should not go. Also drug cartels are multifaceted criminal organisation and they switch from one criminal activities to another criminal activities, even to support terrorism. So we must be very careful with this. We should understand that, as that is not my opinion - this is the opinion of the majority of member-states confirmed in many documents adopted in the United Nations context, that it is inappropriate to believe that legalisation could help to combat crime. It can only benefit criminals. 

SS: In forming drug policy, should the authorities be more concerned with the mafia side of things - all the violence, exploitation, corruption, ties with terrorism - or the human health side of things, as in preventing drug use epidemics and the consequences? Which one?

YF: Only balanced approach can help us. Of course, law enforcement must be supported but it is not enough. The best way of prevention is the prevention at an early stage, but also treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration of drug addicted persons into society are - also, very important tasks of the international community. When we combine both supply and demand reduction, when we act in accordance with human rights standards, in accordance with international treaties we can hope to succeed. 

SS: But look at Mexico. I mean, In Mexico, the drug mafia is threatening the functioning of the state itself. The war against drug cartels involves tanks and helicopters. But that does not deter people from joining the cartels - especially if that is the only job on the horizon for them. So Mexico and countries like Mexico will never win against the cartels unless they fix their economy, right? 

YF: Mexico is making huge efforts to combat organised crime. The criminal, as you call them mafia groups, are the multifaceted criminal groups doing many types of organised crime including drugs of course - illicit drug trafficking - but also manufacturing of some drugs including opioids in Mexico. It is a very difficult task and we are working very closely with Mexico we have an office of UNODC support in Mexico. And we believe that only within the international treaties and international norms, we can combine fighting organised crime, fighting drugs with paying more attention to people protecting their rights, protecting their rights to health and providing them all necessary support, help them to recover from drug addiction. If there is no demand on drugs, there will be no supply. It's clear. 

SS: So, Mr. Fedotov, President Trump is struggling to build a wall on the U.S. Mexico border. And one of his main arguments is that the wall will help combat drug trafficking. Can it?

YF: My impression was that the wall was mostly destined to prevent illicit migration. And unfortunately the United States experienced the huge opioid crisis as you know, although last year there has been a very significant decline in the number of death provoked by this fentanyl and other synthetic opioids crisis. But still that is one of the major problems of North America and also expanding to other continents. Whatever could be done to prevent illicit trafficking but also illicit use of medications or diversion of medication, this could help people. But once again, what is important - to provide people with relevant medical service, medical care and prevention efforts. They could play a magic role.

SS: We also have an example of prohibition that works in Japan, for instance Japan's tough laws enable the government to claim a very low addiction rate. Do you feel the Japanese approach is worth studying and maybe emulating?

YF: Drug control conventions are flexible. And they allow countries a lot of flexibilities to make sure that all measures are taken in accordance with the conventions.Updated and a better fit for the purpose of national legislation, national conditions, national traditions. What is true - the harsh punishment including the death penalty is not helping to prevent the drug use, the drug abuse and illicit drug traffic. We don't see any signs that harsher or moderate punishment. It has a real impact on the flow of drugs. What is important - is the international cooperation, because we're dealing with transnational crime, with a flow of drugs coming from one source, transiting through many countries and then ending up at the destination. So the more and better cooperation is, then it is better to deal with the world drug problem. 

SS: So, whether society should be punitive or tolerant towards drug users is a subject of massive debate. But in countries with radical anti-drug attitudes there is room for abuse of tough drug laws. For instance just recently Russian journalist Ivan Golunov whom the police tried to frame as a drug dealer. How to keep up the fight against drugs with legal tools and not tempt the authorities into abusing the system?

YF: The answer is a stricter rule of law, law abidance and the protection of human rights in all cases. All people have the right to be protected from all kinds of abuses including flow from law enforcement authorities. It is clear. 

SS: I want to talk a bit about countries like Latin America where farmers turn to growing dropped crops out of economic interests, because nothing else brings them as much money as coca leaf for instance or in Afghanistan where people depend on the poppy to survive. How do you tell them to stop growing drugs because, well, “it’s really bad,'' when they have to choose between that and hunger?

YF: In Latin America actually there are three major coca producers: Colombia, Peru. And what we're doing - we have important programs, multimillion programs of supporting these countries in developing alternative livelihoods and encouraging farmers to produce not coca but rather a food, like cacao, like coffee, like cultural trees and many other useful things. Of course, it is less attractive to them but it is more predictable for them, for their families, for their futures, especially if they have land title certificates, they can feel more free to live in determination to produce legal livelihoods for themselves but also for their families. And we have good examples including here in Austria when the local industrial companies are buying these alternative products from Colombia from Peru and selling in Europe. As far as Afghanistan concerned that is another problem. We're also trying to be helpful but unfortunately the overall situation in this country - political instability and security - reduces our capacities to act. And that's why unfortunately we're seeing unprecedented record level of opium production and heroin production in Afghanistan.

SS: I've heard you say that it's very important to engage the local population in fighting drug production. Mafia, crime groups are usually behind this business. Can we expect ordinary folks to get in confrontation with this dangerous people when their families may get killed and their homes may end up burnt?

YF: You know, I am travelling a lot. I'm visiting all these countries including ones in Latin America, Afghanistan, and I can tell you that speaking to local farmers, I made a conclusion that morally they’re prepared to adopt alternatives to drug production, drug cultivation, but they need more support from local authorities. They need stable markets for their illicit products. They need a better infrastructure and they need support from big companies, supermarkets. If it is done, as it is being done in some countries in Latin America, we can hope that it would be successful operation and people will continue to switch from illegal to legal. 

SS: So even if you bomb all the poppy and cannabis fields people are using more and more synthetic drugs. So chemistry is taken over nature in this field. Harder to detect, easier to make are synthetic drugs more of a danger to societies than those which have to be grown first?

YF: That is true. Unfortunately, we have a real crisis, methamphetamine crisis in Asia. It's a scale of natural disaster in countries like Malaysia, like other neighboring countries: Indonesia, even Japan. We have the problem of new psychoactive substances which are developing so fast that governments and international organisations do not have enough time to schedule them, to put them under international drug monitoring and control. That is a real problem, and in many countries, including Russia, synthetic drugs become more prevalent and traditional drugs like heroin, and opium, and morphine. So, we have an early warning system for new psychoactive substances here in Vienna, and we're trying to advise countries on the appearance of the markets of new types of synthetic drugs.

SS: You know, like everything else, drugs have also gone through this 21st century change. I mean, you don't even have to go to a shady part of town to get drugs anymore. There's web-sites on a darknet for everything these days. How does that change the way you work? I mean, how do you deal with this relatively new headache?

YF: That is a real headache, and not a big headache so far as a proportion of the share of this darknet trafficking. It is not compatible, the overall amount of illicit drug trafficking. But it is growing fast, growing and growing trend. And we take care of it. And that means that we need to develop more quickly international cooperation in terms of cybercrime which includes other types of unlawful use of cybercrime, not only for drugs but also for other illicit activities. That is a sensitive issue. Countries may have different opinions on that, but I believe with a goodwill, with a spirit of constructiveness and compromise, they could find a solution to at least some types of cybercrime including the use of cyberspace for illicit drug trafficking, as you said. 

SS: What's more important dealing with the supply chain, with poppy fields and coca plantations or shutting down the marketplaces?

YF: Both are important of course. We need to start from the source, but also interruption of trafficking is very important. I’ll give you one example. We are facing unprecedented increase in cultivation and production of opium poppy in Afghanistan. Production of opium and heroin is growing. But at the same time, we have less and less heroin and opium taken from the northern route from Afghanistan to Central Asia, to Russia. Northern route was used to transport 10 percent of all opium and heroin production in Afghanistan. Now it would be less than 1 percent. And there could be different factors but one of them of course is a better international cooperation, including in Central Asia. Better coordination of law enforcement activities, better efforts to prevention. And that is one of the good news. 

SS: Thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Yury Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, discussing the international efforts in combating drug trafficking and organised  crime.

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