The 57th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the governing body of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), was held March, 2014. Yury Fedotov, the Executive Director of the UNODC and Raymond Yans, the president of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), both die-hard drug warriors with a passion for prohibition, presided over the session.
It was the same old same old.
Fedotov and Yans have blood on their hands. The drug policies they defend and enforce are directly responsible for the violence, death and destruction the War on Drugs (W.O.D.) unleashes around the globe.
The W.O.D. is the longest war ever, over fifty years and counting. It grinds on with no end in sight and no exit strategy. The goal of a “drug-free” world has proved unattainable. A constantly evolving pharmacopoeia of illicit drugs is cheap and available in every country – from bhang in Bangalore ($5 for 5 grams) to heroin in New York City ($6 a bag.) The UNODC’s own yearly drug surveys consistently confirm this reality.
Fedotov and Yans presided over a series of meetings in Vienna, Austria far, far away from the violence and carnage that prohibition causes. Vienna is a wealthy, beautiful, safe and clean modern city with a chocolate museum, gorgeous parks and a public transportation system that runs like clockwork. Fine wine, legendary coffee houses that serve strong shots of espresso (it’s worth remembering that two-hundred years ago coffee was illegal in Austria) plates of Viennese specialties Weiner Schnitzel and Sachertorte are all on offer.
I wanted the CND to meet in Cuidad Juárez, Mexico. For years, drug turf wars rocked the city and led to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing. Whole neighborhoods were boarded up, bombed out or burned down in a profit-fueled frenzy to reconfigure drug markets. I would have forced Fedotov and Yans to walk through the empty streets of these barrios to see the destruction of people’s homes and businesses and how prohibition makes ghost towns out of vibrant communities. There are no museums or parks, just mass graves called “narcofosas.” I’d make these two “tough-on-drug-crime” crusaders face the wrath and anguish of the families who lost 15 teenagers at a party to drug cartel gunman who were ordered to kill everyone because a suspected rival gang member was supposed to be there.
Population of Vienna: 1.7 million. Population of Cuidad Juárez: 1.5 million. People fleeing the violence in Cuidad Juárez: 450,000. People fleeing the violence of Vienna: 0. Murders in Cuidad Juárez: 191 homicides per 100,000 residents (2009.) Murders in Vienna: 1.1 per 100,000 residents (2009).
Let Fedotov and Yans do the math.
That UNODC enforced drug prohibition has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people is not in dispute. The War on Drugs has a global, militarized infrastructure composed of heavily armed soldiers, police and undercover agents. They are legal death squads and kill with near impunity because who is going to defend the human rights of people who work in the drug trade or people who use illicit substances? They’re criminals and deserve to be chucked away in gulags and tortured for decades under mandatory minimum drug laws.
The ossified institutions that Fedotov and Yans represent refuse to recognize that the criminalization of drug production and the stigmatizing of drug use are fundamentally incompatible with human rights. They can draft dozens of declarations and project all the PowerPoint slides they want to about human rights but until the W.O.D. ends, human rights for workers in the illicit drug economy and for drug users is an impossibility.
The barbarous fruits of Fedotov and Yans’s work find their most lethal expression in how people die in the W.O.D. and are the most compelling argument to end it.
In Mexico, drug cartels hire workers whose sole purpose is to kill. For the profession of sicario (assassin) a peculiar skill set is needed: The ability to murder in myriad ways, to torture, to kidnap and to disappear enemies. Because there is no way to settle disputes legally and the profits at stake are so enormous, hence the need for sicarios to impose “justice.”
The Mexican people are hung like human piñatas, beaten with weapons until their bodies break apart and entrails fall out of cavities. Sicarios, in a gruesome game of one-upmanship, compete to create ever more savage ways to kill. Decomposed bodies are found in bright blue barrels filled with acid. In one container, gallons of lye dissolved all tissue and bone leaving just 2 silicone breast implants floating at the bottom. A day’s work for a sicario might include: Suspending a bullet–ridden corpse from a bridge with a sign that warns, “This is going to happen to all of those posting funny things on the Internet. You better fucking pay attention. We’re about to get you.,” slicing a face off, kidnapping taco vendors who are behind in paying protection money, sewing a cartel rival’s face on to a soccer ball, sending death threats to journalists, decapitating heads and rolling them on to a crowded dance floor, burning bags full of bodies or lowering the still alive in to vats full of boiling water. These Hannibal Lectors, these Frankensteins, are the monstrous creations of Fedotov and Yans’s War on Drugs that takes no prisoners.
During the drafting of the “Joint Ministerial Statement,” the Mexican delegation asked that a sentence be included acknowledging that a real debate on global drug policy was needed. The Mexicans should know, right? Under six years of Felipe Calderón’s bloodstained reign, 100,000 people were killed in drug war-related violence. The drug warriors ignored their request. One sentence. 100,000 dead human beings.
Fedotov and Yans have no concern for the desperately poor women of Colombia and Peru who numb their throats with chloraseptic and swallow dozens of condoms packed with cocaine, board planes for the United States and are murdered in cheap hotel rooms by narco-traffickers. Why some of these women die? They can’t shit out the drugs. Laxatives are usually taken but they don’t always work because the cocaine stuffed condoms get stuck in the folds of the intestines. So narco-surgeons perform emergency surgery and cut open the women’s abdomens and fish out their product. Mortality is one hundred percent. Or sometimes the condoms burst inside of the women and they die from a massive overdose. Then the doctor cuts open her gut. Either way you slice it, it’s just business. To earn the profits, there are losses.
Fedotov and Yans don’t give a shit about drug mules who die transporting drugs to earn money to feed their families. These destitute women are as disposable as the condoms they swallow.
The war-torn country of Afghanistan produces over 90 percent of the world’s opiates and that does not please the UNODC or the INCB. In fact, it positively embarrasses Fedotov and Yans. Every year, poppy cultivation either increases or remains stable. Afghanistan is a premier example of how supply-side measures–interdiction, eradication, arrests and incarceration–fail spectacularly.
Still, eradication teams regularly destroy poppy fields. It’s all a show, but it forces many Afghan farmers in to crippling debt. One solution is selling daughters to pay off the money owed. Called “opium brides,” girls as young as six years old are sold. And who is behind these forced and unhappy marriages? Fedotov and Yans. Their love of supply-side counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan enslaves girls and women.
Opiate users in Afghanistan are similarly enslaved by prohibition because demand-side reduction doesn’t work either. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans across the country use high purity, cheap opium and heroin. There are roughly seven thousand opium smokers and heroin injectors in Kabul. Dirty and despised, the men huddle under bridges, gather in parks and congregate in the median strips of major roads. Heroin is the drug of choice to treat decades of unrelenting trauma. But the W.O.D. punishes the traumatized, so the addicted are harassed, beaten and killed by the police.
Fedotov and Yans are accomplices in these crimes against the Afghan people.
Demand for drug treatment in Afghanistan far outstrips the supply. There is one methadone clinic in the entire country and it serves just 77 people! When I was in Kabul last year, I went to open-air drug scenes with outreach workers from the clinic. We were immediately surrounded by dozens of men demanding access to methadone. This is the supply-demand disconnect: What people are demanding is not being supplied and what is being supplied is not being demanded.
Fedotov and Yans are not vocal advocates for methadone despite the UNODC formally endorsing the use of maintenance medications. Support is typically for small, “pilot” or “experimental” methadone projects, as if methadone, which has been safely prescribed for over 40 years, needed to be studied.
If Fedotov and Yans were serious about decreasing the number of illicit opiate users they would dramatically expand access to methadone especially in countries with large populations of opiate users. Like Russia. The country has an estimated 3 million heroin users. Over 30,000 Russians die every year from their addiction, many from preventable overdose. But incredibly, methadone is illegal. Viktor Ivanov, the head of the Russian Federal Anti-Narcotic Agency, a former KGB officer, and a twenty-first century troglodyte, stated publicly during a meeting at the United Nations in New York in 2011 that there is no evidence that methadone works. It’s all a hoax. That Ivanov could utter such a bald-faced lie and not be seriously challenged is both astonishing and outrageous.
Fedotov and Yans have done nothing to confront Ivanov’s flouting of evidence-based drug policies. When Fedotov was asked why the UNODC hasn’t pushed the Russians to legalize methadone, all the Executive Director could say was drug policy was up to each member state.
The UNODC enforces prohibition and regularly chastises countries that implement harm reduction measures. When Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 1991, members of the INCB flew to Lisbon to confront the Portuguese. And both the UNODC and the INCB have publicly criticized Uruguay’s decision to legalize marijuana. Yans accused the president of Uruguay, José Mujica, of having “pirate attitudes” toward UN drug control conventions and that marijuana legalization “…poses a grave danger to public health and well-being.” Fedotov said, “Legalization won’t solve the drug problem.” But why won’t Fedotov and Yans confront the Russians who are clearly violating the most basic rights of drug users to take methadone, which they say they endorse?
Curiously, neither dared to reprimand the United States. Last year, in clear violation of the conventions, the states of Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Fedotov, who is Russian and is in a position to alleviate the tremendous suffering of heroin users in Russia won’t even stand up for the human rights of his own people who are dying needlessly by the thousands.
So it should come as no surprise that the crisis of methadone users in the Crimea isn’t on the top of Fedotov or Yans’s agenda. The Crimean peninsula, previously an autonomous region of the Ukraine has been annexed by the Russian Federation. Viktor Ivanov immediately stated that one of his first priorities was to close all opiate substitution therapy programs. Once again, the UNODC is doing nothing to oppose Ivanov.
The global institutions of drug prohibition will not transform themselves. Change never comes from within entrenched bureaucracies, there’s too much lose. The career bureaucrats who staff the UNODC and the INCB are a gang of dangerous fossils who believe blindly and fervently that the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 is working just fine despite mountains of scientific evidence and piles of dead bodies that prove otherwise.
At the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 2016, those of us who are committed to ending the War on Drugs must unequivocally say to Fedotov and Yans, “You better fucking pay attention. We’re about to get you.” And when we get them, we should put them on trial for crimes against humanity.
Helen Redmond is an independent journalist and writes about the war on drugs and health care. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org