Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Can the United Nations Rid the World of the Scourge of Drugs?

H R Seccombe
Presentation at FFDLR meeting, Canberra 25 may 2000

Thank you. "Can the United Nations Rid the World of the Scourge of Drugs?" I am tempted to make this a very short talk by pronouncing the word "no" and sitting down.

This talk is partly autobiographical, which I hope will give some immediacy to the subject of international drugs policy. I should say that I am speaking as a former official of the UN and as a person with a continuing interest in drugs issues. I do not speak in any other capacity, and my views do not represent the position of any government or other organisation.

I have structured this talk according to a series of questions.

I took up my position with the UN in January 1991, with the quaint title of "Field Adviser" for the United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC) in Pakistan. During my tenure the UN bodies related to illicit drugs were restructured, and so my employer became the United Nations International Drug Control Programme, UNDCP.

Introduction: how come I worked for the UN on drugs?

My qualifications for the job were twofold:

I had some direct experience of the United Nations, having worked on another UN body, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) when I was living in Vienna in the 1980s.

I had some knowledge of the country of my UN posting, Pakistan, as I had worked there for the previous two years (1989 and 1990).

Perhaps there was a third, undeclared qualification:

I knew nothing about drugs issues.

Thus I came to the job with widely held views and prejudices. I believed that illicit drugs were bad; it was natural that they should be prohibited, and I believed I was doing the right thing in attempting to reduce supply in the world, as well as demand in Pakistan.

What am I doing here?

The body of this talk is an extended answer to that question. A brief answer is that I have concluded that the work of UNDCP is not productive and is indeed counter-productive—counterproductive in the sense that, if you say you’re achieving lots when you’re not achieving much, you are extending the life of misdirected strategies and making it harder to have open-minded reviews of policy.

Another reason for being here is that I don’t get much sense of the fundamental human dignity of the drug user in UN documents.

Broadly, I am concerned that a war on drugs very easily becomes a war on drug users and a war against countries which supply illicit drugs. I am concerned about that.

I am here as a Christian, and I believe that what I have to say reflects Christian values.

I’d like now to give a picture of the supply side of the illicit drugs industry, focusing on Pakistan as a source of opium and its derivatives.

Why is Pakistan a source of illicit drugs?

Two relevant plants were widely cultivated in Pakistan.

One of these was cannabis, which grew both cultivated and wild. Indeed, there was quite a bit growing in the vicinity of my office in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city. Some people grew rich on cannabis: the huge palace of Haji Ayub Afridi on the section of the Grand Trunk Road leading from Peshawar to the Khyber Pass was reputed to be built on cannabis money.

The significant illicit crop in Pakistan was opium poppy, the source of heroin. This was the focus of my work in Pakistan. Poppy has been grown in Pakistan for centuries, if not millennia. It took off as a commercial crop in the 1980s.

In my first weeks in the UN I went to see poppy-growing areas. All these were—and I suppose still are—in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, which adjoins Afghanistan. North West Frontier Province included a patchwork of tribal territories with a peculiar legal status, as the national laws did not automatically apply there, even nominally. It was necessary for the President of Pakistan (Ghulam Ishak Khan at the time) to make a special declaration extending any one law to the tribal areas, and even then there were legal differences between so-called "agencies" and "districts" in the province. In some respects, including in terminology, the situation had not changed since it was indeed the North West frontier of British India. As in the days of Winston Churchill, who participated in the skirmish there in the 1890s, there was the Commissioner of Malakand, under which were the Agent for Khyber Agency and so on. One of the areas in North West Frontier Province was Dir District. The United Nations had a particular interest in Dir District, as we had a rural development project there. Let me try to give a sense of it.

Dir District is a remote region characterised by high, largely treeless mountains and swift-flowing rivers. Snow falls heavily in winter, as I experienced in January 1991, and the summers are hot and dry. Although the environment is harsh, it is fairly densely populated, and there is pressure on the farmers to get the most out of their land. They are generally poor. The local people are of the Pathan ethnic group. In the Raj, the British used to say that, if you find yourself in a hut with a snake and a Pathan, kill the Pathan first. I don’t endorse the racism in that statement, but I mention it to give a sense of how the Pathans appeared to one group of outsiders. They are fiercely Muslim. The rivers, steep mountains and high watersheds tend to isolate the tribespeople from the outside world and even from each other.

"Tribespeople" may sound like an odd term in these times and in Asia, but it is the accepted term. It reflects the traditional nature of society and the ethnic and linguistic differences applying in the various areas of NWFP.

The men of the area were well armed, with the Afghanistan-Pakistan sub-region awash with arms because of the Afghan war. At the time, the Soviet-backed President Najibullah was in Kabul, and fighters backed by the US, Pakistan and Iran were opposing him.

So what did I see on my first visit to this region? I was driven west from Islamabad to Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and then north and west, over the Malakand Pass, into Swat, famous for its wood carving, and so into Dir, where the UN funded the Dir District Development Project. This project was a “crop substitution” project, although that term—“crop substitution”—was no longer standard UN parlance. Thus the project was designed to facilitate a transition from cultivation of opium poppy to other crops, such as onions. As a development project, it included infrastructure including roads, so that farmers could more easily bring their crops—other than opium—to market. It included support for schools and work to improve the status of women. Most of the elements of the project were beneficial. But let me return to the story of my first visit to Dir District.

I began peering at the verge as we drove, looking out for poppy, wondering if I had spotted one or two flowers among the blades of grass. I needn’t have worried about spotting the flowers. I had already read that the crop at that time covered some 20,000 acres: that is not a crop you can hide or confine to narrow verges by roads. 20,000 acres means that whole hillsides are covered. In season (not January, the time of my first visit), vast areas are obviously and indeed beautifully covered with poppy.

The cultivation of opium poppy was illegal. Why was it still there? Why did not the Government of Pakistan enforce its own legislation and its international obligations and eliminate the poppy? I can think of three main reasons, namely democratic pressure, the threat of tribal violence and corruption.

Democratic pressure should not be ignored as a reason. For the 4½ years of my living there, Pakistan had civilian governments, and it did have elections. The provincial government of NWFP and the national Government of Pakistan could reasonably be expected to be concerned about pressure being applied through constitutional channels to resist the enforcement of the law.

Secondly, there was a prospect of a significant violent reaction by tribesmen in the poppy-growing areas, if the Government had attempted to enforce the law. There had been some deaths—of tribesmen—in the mid-1980s in an instance of poppy eradication. Machine guns, the well loved Kalashnikovs, were certainly widely held, and the tribesmen were also said to have rocket launchers and other goodies available, a spillover effect of the civil war then proceeding in Afghanistan.

I believe that the reason which I have put third, namely corruption, is the strongest. It alone is sufficient to explain a lack of Government resolution. I suspect that my second reason—the threat of violence—was overstated. The Deputy Commissioner of Dir District told me many stories of the violence in the area which he administered: clearly, it would not have been to his advantage to downplay the level of potential resistance to any action by the authorities.

What are typical (ideal!) characteristics of a source country?

I have suggested three reasons why the cultivation of poppy continued in Pakistan. The same factors were behind the initiation of commercial poppy cultivation there, and they characterise, to a greater or lesser extent, other major sources of illicit drugs elsewhere in the world. The features are:

Colombia is an example of a narco-state in which the apparatus of government is severely weakened. I attended a meeting between officials of Iran and Pakistan at which an officer of the Pakistan Narcotics Control Board said that one of Pakistan’s provinces was equivalent to Colombia. There, as in Afghanistan, violence and the drug industry feed on each other.

Thus the drugs industry selects certain territories to host illicit crops because of their weaknesses. Once established, the drugs industry makes these weaknesses worse. It uses violence and corruption to protect itself, and thus increases violence and corruption.

Drug source countries: illegality as fundamental factor

Let me stress that it is the illegal status of the drugs like heroin and cocaine which pushes crop production into countries like Pakistan. That is stating the obvious, but I think it important to make a link between the legal situation and the harm suffered by countries like Pakistan. The legal situation is the national laws of Western countries and the international law which we have sponsored, as well as the laws of countries like Pakistan, which reflect pressure from Western countries. The effect of the policy of Western countries is to outsource the production of opium to countries with more fragile institutions. It’s as if we commissioned countries like Pakistan to produce the illicit drugs which our populations demand. Once there, the illicit drugs industry provides funds for guerilla groups and money to corrupt the justice system, adding to the pre-existing violence and corruption and harming the host country’s civil society and development prospects. Thus our laws have the effect of harming already poor and fragile countries.

This leads to a suggestion for action. There is a large constituency in Australia concerned with the wellbeing of poor countries, especially in Africa and Asia. This is an important component of the aid lobby. I suggest that this constituency should be made aware of the harmful effect of the policy of prohibition on the sort of people which they are trying to help.

What about the United Nations?

As I said, I joined the United Nations in January 1991. This was in the period after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and before the counter-invasion by the coalition of countries under the aegis of the United Nations. In terms of comfort, it was the wrong time to become a UN official in Pakistan. In that country, the population was, to a man, in support of Saddam Hussain. (I deliberately used the phrase "to a man" in reflection of the status of women in Pakistan.) Of course, the organ of the UN which endorsed the war was the Security Council, whereas the UN program for which I worked was of quite a different nature. It may help to have a few words about the structure of the United Nations. The fifteen-member Security Council has, as its name implies, responsibility for security matters: most other agencies fall under the UN General Assembly, which includes all UN members. Under the General Assembly is ECOSOC, the Economic and Social Council of the UN: it has some 53 members and was designed to supervise programs more closely than could the General Assembly. The United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) is one of the many programs supervised—at least nominally—by ECOSOC.

The supervision by ECOSOC is conducted through the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which has 53 member countries. There are additional subordinate bodies.

The Subcommission on Illicit Drug Traffic and Related Matters in the Near and Middle East, established by ECOSOC in 1973,

Regional meetings of heads of national drug law enforcement agencies: there are four such HONLEAs.

UNDCP was established by GA resolution 45/179 (1990). It works under the following major treaties:

UNDCP provides secretariat services for the CND and for its subsidiary bodies and for the INCB.

When I refer to the "UN" in this talk, I am thinking especially about UNDCP and the INCB.

To one side in the UN structure are the specialised agencies. These include the familiar UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO has activities related to illicit—and licit—drugs and, by its charter, is inclined to approach drugs issues from a health perspective. I suggest that every opportunity should be taken to cooperate with WHO and to strengthen it. WHO has arrangements to affiliate non-government organisations (NGOs): these may be worth pursuing.

An essential part of the UN structure is the various drugs treaties. I am not expert in these, and others here present are, so I won’t say much about them. I would like just to note a few features:

they have a long history, before the foundation of the UN, there were treaties seeking to control the production of and trafficking in opium;

the push for the treaties was dominated by the United States;

when I was recruited to the UN, an American in a senior position explained that UNFDAC was a "money-laundering organisation;" this was a jocular way of saying that this UN body was an instrument of the foreign policy of its donors, not least the United States;

the treaties have an emphasis on enforcement—or at least most of the international effort under the treaties has an emphasis on enforcement.

They make allowance for the production of opium for legal drug manufacture. There is a special body established to supervise this production, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a body which has attracted some attention in Australia. Let me quote from the 1999 report of the INCB, which was established by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, which entered into force in 1964.

The International Narcotics Control Board is the successor to the drug control bodies, the first of which was established by international treaty over 70 years ago. A series of treaties confer on the Board specific responsibilities. The Board endeavours "to limit the cultivation, production, manufacture and use of drugs to an adequate amount required for medical and scientific purposes," "to ensure their availability for such purposes" and "to prevent illicit cultivation, production and manufacture of, and illicit traffic in and use of, drugs," in accordance with article 9 of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 as amended by the 1972 Protocol….

The Board consists of 13 members who are elected by the Economic and Social Council and who serve in their personal capacity, not as government representatives…. Three members with medical, pharmacological or pharmaceutical experience are elected from a list of persons nominated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and 10 members are elected from a list of persons nominated by Members of the United Nations and by States parties that are not Members of the United Nations, in accordance with article 9 of the 1961Convention as amended by the 1972 Protocol. Members of the Board are persons who, by their competence, impartiality and disinterestedness, command general confidence.

I knew the Pakistani member of the INCB pretty well. He was Sahibzada Raoof Ali Khan, a former chairman of the Pakistan Narcotics Control Board, a specialist police-type organisation with responsibility for drugs matters. He was my friend: I respected his views and I wish to honour his memory (he has now passed away). However, I wish to relate his role to the claim by the INCB which I just quoted, namely that members of the Board are persons who, by their competence, impartiality and disinterestedness, command general confidence.

He was not disinterested. Before and during my tenure he was employed as a consultant for UNDCP, and thus he had an interest in maintaining good relations with UNDCP, in toeing the party line. I am not accusing him of hypocrisy: his background as a law enforcement official meant that he was probably entirely comfortable with UNDCP’s approach. The fact remains that his personal interests were bound up with his expressed views on drugs matters: he was not disinterested. As a member of the INCB and as a part-time consultant, he was part of the anti-drugs industry. He must have been put forward by the Pakistan Government, on the recommendation of his colleagues in national agencies, because of his background and the compatibility of his views with the international treaties and Pakistan’s national policies. He was far from having the exploring attitude of a scientist who approaches a difficult problem with an open mind: he was part of the law enforcement establishment.

I suspect that similar comments would apply to other members of the INCB. Similar comments also applied to me as an international civil servant. My income, potentially my superannuation, depended on my conforming to UNDCP’s approach, which was largely about law enforcement: mainly in the prevention of illicit crop cultivation and also in the prevention of drug use and trafficking, in cooperation with national police and customs agencies.

In short, the UN itself is an interested party, a lobby group with its own interests to protect. A former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations in Vienna has told me that he had not found any UNDCP official who actually believed in the effectiveness of the agency’s work.

I’d like to mention one more element in the governance of UNDCP: the importance of the "major donors." By donating a minimum sum to UN drug control efforts, a country could join this club and be in a position to influence UNDCP’s activities. Australia’s status as a major donor no doubt helped with my own recruitment.

Can the United Nations rid the world of the scourge of drugs?

During my time in the UN I came across many UN speeches stating in ringing terms the objective of ridding the world of the "scourge of drugs." A UN Special Session on Drugs held in 1998 has actually formally set a target date, 2008, for progress in this regard:

"significant and measurable results in the field of demand reduction by the year 2008"

commitment to developing "strategies with a view to eliminating or reducing significantly the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008."

This is where I get to answer "no" to the question whether the UN—or anyone else—can eliminate trafficking in and use of illicit drugs. Trafficking could be eliminated: if we eliminated all trade and all movement of persons. The evidence of the decades of prohibition is that in the real world trafficking cannot be stopped.

Let me go back for a moment to the first link in the supply chain from illicit crop to consumer; let me touch again on the rural development projects which were meant to facilitate the abandonment of illicit crops by farmers. Somebody suggested that I should talk more about those projects. I could do so: I could talk about the choices between onions and strawberries as alternative crops; I could talk about choices between this or that valley as the site of a road; I could talk about speeches that I have heard about simply trying harder—but I don’t think that would contribute much. I don’t wish to denigrate the efforts of those who are expert in rural development: it’s just that I don’t see such work as tipping the balance. The evidence of past decades is that, if you succeed in eliminating an illicit crop from one valley, it will move to the next valley or to the next province or to the next country. This is the "balloon effect:" you squeeze the balloon in one place, with the result that it bulges out elsewhere. It does not burst, and shows no sign of doing so.

Can increased efforts at least reduce trafficking to a trickle?

It is striking that a paper produced under UNDCP auspices has thrown light on the suggestion that devoting more resources to the prevention of smuggling will be effective. The article was published in the British Journal of Criminology and focussed on smuggling to Europe. It concluded that present levels of enforcement will have little deterrent or preventive impact on drug trafficking to Europe and that the implications of its analysis for increasing the effectiveness of European law enforcement are `not encouraging. The balance of evidence suggests increasing enforcement will impact only marginally upon prices [of illicit drugs on the market] due to rapidly diminishing marginal returns.' In other words, throwing resources at the problem of smuggling will not pay off.

I am sorry to deliver this message. I am aware that some people—perhaps especially family and friends of drug users—would like to hear the opposite.

Given that it is impossible to stop trafficking, to break the supply chain from cultivation of the illicit crop to the user of the illicit substance, I join those who have concluded that the only rational course is to accept that illicit drugs will always be with us and that we must focus on how to reduce the harm associated with them.

I am conscious that I have not proved to the nth degree that it is impossible to destroy utterly the illicit drugs market. A truly rigorous proof might not be attainable. I suggest that, if any proof is demanded, it should be demanded of those who claim that it is possible to destroy the market and that it is worth putting resources into the attempt. The way in which the illicit drug market has flourished over the decades should put the onus of proof on those who claim it can be destroyed.

Why does the UN get continued funding after years of failure?

An important part of my job was public presentation. The message conveyed by UNDCP was that the drug problem was bad and in many cases getting worse. I suppose we had to claim enough success to justify continued funding, but we also had to say that things were still bad, so we still needed funding from member governments.

Our reports were not concerned with the dignity of the drug user. In fact, UN reports are characterised by the reference to "drug abuse" rather than "drug use." The implication was that consumers are not drug users, not in control, but inevitably abusers. I am aware, of course, that many drug users are addicted and are not in control of their habit, but I remain concerned at a lack of balance in terminology in INCB reports.

I’d like to address the mystery why the UN gets continued funding for its efforts, after many years of failure. I’d be glad to hear your ideas on this puzzle.

One reason is that there is a well oiled and well funded publicity machine in favour of current policies; the United Nations is an important part of that, though not the most important.

There are lobby groups in various countries profiting from current arrangements.

In the United States, prison officers have increased greatly in numbers with the enormous jail population of drug offenders. The prison officers can be expected to lobby group for a continued war on drugs—or on drug users.

A chilling article in Newsweek of 3 April 2000 referred to the power of the US arms lobby in promoting the war on drugs, including on Colombian soil.

When the budget for anti-drug measures is carved up, there seems to be a tendency to share money out among agencies like customs, coastguards and police, without apparent regard to past failure and certain future failure.

The UN advocates what it calls a "balanced approach," meaning an effort which includes various aspects of supply reduction, as well as demand reduction. This must have some appeal to the spectrum of government agencies potentially involved, including police, customs etc.

It seems to me that a major reason why funding for the war on drugs continues is an irrational element in the fear of drugs. It’s not just ignorance: a lot of people, including me, are ignorant about the best ways of reducing malaria or influenza or salination of the soil. The problem with drugs is seems to be the gut fear: somehow, people fear drugs so much and in such a way that they press for the continuation of obvious measures, even though they have a poor track record. It’s different with influenza: people fear it, but they don’t tell doctors what to do.


I come to the conclusion. This is the hard part, with some pressure to suggest some new or particularly effective measure.

I can only suggest a continuing effort to define the objectives of policies related to illicit drugs. Are we essentially trying to enforce the law, even if the law is an ass—or some other animal, like a bull in a china shop?

I have not peppered this talk with statistics of crops grown or drugs produced by criminals or drugs seized by law enforcement agencies. All such statistics are of secondary importance, and it is certainly wrong to cite statistics of drugs seized as proof that current strategies are working.

There needs to be a focus on important results: on the general health and welfare of the population both in our own country and poor countries like Pakistan. Negative indicators include the deaths associated with illicit drugs, the ill-health, unemployment, homelessness and other forms of distress of illicit drug users and their families. These are indicators relevant to the objective of reducing the harm associated with illicit drugs. Corruption of law enforcement agencies including the judiciary should also be seen as an important indicator, as should the sheer use—or waste—of public resources.

I have suggested that a very important consideration should be the way in which the illicit drugs policy of Western countries is harming producer countries.

Also important are data relating to drug use: age of first use, average age of users of drugs such as heroin etc.

One action which might be considered is for Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform to seek affiliation to ECOSOC, which might offer a channel for feeding views into the UN system. There is a Committee on Non-Governmental Organisations which reports to ECOSOC with recommendations for bodies to have "consultative status." In 1998, this Committee recommended, and ECOSOC accepted some 60 NGOs, including (for example) the

Afghan Development Association

All India Women’s Education Fund Association

Association pour le développement harmonieux de la mère et de l’enfant du Cameroun.

I am aware that Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform already has contacts with NGOs in other countries, and I see value in expanding such links for mutual support.

Families and Friends is an organisation focused on the demand for drugs. I have come to consideration of drugs issues from a different direction, from supply. I found my way to the harm minimisation approach. I congratulate Families and Friends on its work in this area and hope that I can make a contribution to harm minimisation.


ECOSOC Economic and Social Council (of the UN)
INCB International Narcotics Control Board
UNDCP United Nations International Drug Control Programme
UNFDAC UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control
WHO World Health Organisation