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."

The cleaning 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."

Kenneth Roth, 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."

Another case 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 released.

The response 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.

U.S. officials 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."

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