A Duty to Censor
U.N. officials want to crack down on drug war protesters.
In a TV ad that
aired worldwide in May, a cleaning woman walks down the hall of the United Nations
headquarters in New York. As she approaches the globe in the front of the General
Assembly's meeting room, the narrator talks about the organization's 20th Special
Session: "On June the 8th, leaders from 185 countries will gather in this room
for three days to talk about drugs."
woman, beginning with her rag on Thailand, spritzes the globe and "wipes it
free of drugs." Her rag becomes a squadron of helicopters spraying fields with
herbicide. We see images of high-tech radar equipment, drug-sniffing dogs, and
flaming drug laboratories, offset by two classroom shots representing anti-drug
education. The narrator concludes: "Three days...this room...and a world of
good. A drug-free world...we can do it."
The U.N.'s anti-drug
apparatus--which includes the Drug Control Program, the Commission on Narcotic
Drugs, and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB)--seeks to wipe the
world free of dissent as well as drugs. The INCB's 1997 report calls for criminalizing
opposition to the war on drugs. The nations of the world have not followed through
on that recommendation yet, but the spirit behind it has helped prevent a genuine
international debate about drug policy.
Based on the
1988 U.N. Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic
Substances, the INCB claims that all nations are obliged to enact laws that
prohibit inciting or inducing people "by any means" to "use narcotic drugs or
psychotropic substances illicitly." According to the INCB's report, offenders
include anyone who "shows illicit use in a favourable light" or who advocates
"a change in the drug law."
The report criticizes
"reputable medical journals" for "favouring the `medical' use of cannabis,"
since "such information... tends to generate an overall climate of acceptance
that is favourable to" illegal drug use. It also attacks the marketing of nonpsychoactive
hemp products, such as clothing and foodstuffs, for "contributing to the overall
promotion of illicit drugs."
The INCB even
suggests that political campaigns based on calls for drug policy reform may
be prohibited under international treaties: "Election campaigns have been conducted
with candidates standing for parliament on a drug legalization platform. Some
of the candidates for the European Parliament stood on such a platform and were
successful. Thus, they were able to use their access and influence to win others
over to their cause. Some campaigns, such as the successful campaigns for the
`medical' use of cannabis in Arizona and California in the United States of
America, have sought to change the law....
"The Board notes
with regret that despite the fact that...Governments of States that are parties
to the 1988 Convention are required to make the incitement or inducement to
take drugs a criminal offence, either this has not been done or the law has
not been enforced. Prominent people have issued some very public calls to take
drugs and have not been prosecuted."
The new director
of the U.N. Drug Control Program, Pino Arlacchi, has followed up on the 1997
report by attacking European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs Emma Bonino,
an advocate of drug policy reform. In a March letter to Jacques Santer, president
of the European Commission, Arlacchi questioned Bonino's status: "I wish to
raise the critical issue of the compatibility of Ms. Bonino's behaviour with
the role and functions of a top official of the European Commission," he wrote.
"Her main objective seems to be to ridicule the efforts undertaken" by the Drug
Control Program. In response, Santer wrote to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan,
arguing that it is perfectly appropriate for a European commissioner to consider
"fundamental questions about the principles, objectives and modalities of the
war on drugs."
executive director of Human Rights Watch, noted that the Drug Control Program's
position on dissenters has sweeping implications. "Many people...do not share
the views about drugs reflected in the U.N. drug conventions and the antinarcotics
efforts of many member states," he said in an April letter to the members of
the INCB. "Would the [INCB] have member states criminalize advocacy of medical
marijuana or of the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana?
Would it have states impose criminal sanctions on people who write books about
the sacred truths they have allegedly received from ingesting hallucinogens?
Does it really support carting musicians off to jail if their songs are deemed
to glamorize drugs?" For anyone who values freedom of expression, the INCB's
blithe advocacy of worldwide censorship is pretty scary.
But a more immediate
threat is the suppression of politically incorrect views within the U.N. itself.
The World Health Organization removed a section from a recent report on marijuana
concluding that the drug's hazards pale beside those of tobacco and alcohol.
WHO said the section was dropped because "the reliability and public health
significance of such comparisons are doubtful." The lead researcher, Robin Room
of Canada's Addiction Research Foundation, disagreed. "In my view," he wrote
in The (Toronto) Globe and Mail, "enough is known for such comparisons
to be useful." The real concern seemed to be the potential reaction from U.N.
drug control officials. One source familiar with the controversy says the view
at the Drug Control Program is that "anyone who wants to make comparisons [between
marijuana and licit drugs] is a legalizer."
of WHO censorship involved research on coca. In 1994, after two years of research
in 19 countries, a group of well-respected investigators concluded that coca
leaf chewing is not addictive. They also found that most cocaine users consume
very little of the drug and experience few serious problems. The results were
summarized in a March 1995 press release. In May 1995, according to official
WHO records, the organization's U.S. representative, Neil Boyer, "took
the view that the study on cocaine...indicates that [WHO's] programme on substance
abuse was headed in the wrong direction" and that "if WHO activities relating
to drugs failed to reinforce proven drug control approaches, funds for the relevant
programmes should be curtailed." The full results of the study were never
to that project was reminiscent of an incident that occurred nearly half a century
ago. In 1950, when he found out that the Navy was investigating the use of coca
to prevent muscular fatigue, Harry Anslinger, director of the Federal Bureau
of Narcotics, wrote to the principal researcher. "The fact that a domestic scientific
project was in progress in the United States, involving the study of the effect
of chewing of coca leaves on fatigue, would have a most unfortunate effect on
our efforts to achieve international agreement on limitation of production of
the leaves," Anslinger said in a letter uncovered by historian Paul Gootenberg.
"I therefore must strongly urge that that part of the project involving the
use of coca leaves be abandoned." It was.
continue to lead the international fight against deviation from the official
line on drugs. According to staff members at the U.N. Drug Control Program,
the INCB's U.S. representative, Herbert Okun, has played a vital role in developing
the U.N.'s censorship standards. That role is not surprising, given the attitude
of U.S. drug warriors toward American dissenters.
In December 1996,
a month after California and Arizona voters legalized the medical use of marijuana,
Attorney General Janet Reno, drug czar Barry McCaffrey, and Drug Enforcement
Administration Director Thomas Constantine announced that the federal government
would punish any doctor who recommended marijuana to a patient. A group of California
physicians challenged the policy as a violation of the First Amendment, and
they won a temporary injunction from a federal judge. A year later, when television
character Murphy Brown smoked marijuana to relieve the nausea brought on by
cancer chemotherapy, Constantine promised to investigate "if any laws were broken."
By trying to
silence skeptical voices, drug warriors further weaken their authority and credibility.
Perhaps sensing that such an approach is counterproductive, the conservative
Finnish delegation to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs rejected the conclusions
of the INCB's 1997 report. "Finland represents a very restrictive drug policy
line," it said. "We consider, however, that it would be unfair to label all
those who are of a different opinion as being in favour of drugs. If we feel
that we are the losers in the debate with the free press, it is best to check
our own arguments."
O. Coffin is a research associate at the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy
think tank in New York.