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A visiting United Nations official told the Healthy Drug Law Symposium in Wellington today that the UN-led international drug control system has been successful, despite criticism and that it is essential the world community works together on reforming it where it has failed.

Sandeep Chawla, the Director of Policy Analysis and Public Affairs at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said the debate between proponents of ‘zero tolerance’ and those favouring ‘harm reduction’ has often been unhelpful.

“What you do not hear people talking about are facts such as the multilateral drug control regime having contained illicit drug use to less than five percent of the world adult population, and hardcore problem drug users to less than one percent.

“There has been considerable reduction over recent decades in the consumption of opiates, the most problematic of drugs, and opium cultivation and production has been limited to just one or two countries in the main.”

However he said containment does not mean the problem has been solved and that the way the drug control system has been applied has led to other problems.

“An unintended consequence has been the huge criminal black market that now thrives in order to get prohibited substances from producers to consumers. This has led to a second problem – the displacement of resources away from public health and into law enforcement.

“It also appears we have created a system where those who fall into the web of addiction find themselves excluded and marginalised, tainted with a moral stigma, and often unable to find treatment even when they want it.”

He said the international community must renew its commitment to existing conventions and work together on reforms based on empirical evidence rather than ideology, and that public health, the first principle of drug control, must be brought back to centre stage.

“Essential to the obligations of all signatories to United Nations conventions is the commitment to protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms such as access to health services.

Mr Chawla said he believed the way forward was to avoid pointless debate from extreme positions, and that enforcement, prevention, treatment and harm reduction should all occur simultaneously.

“There is sufficient consensus for the international community to work together to refine the multilateral drug control system in the areas of crime prevention, harm reduction and human rights.

“There is no single 'silver bullet'. We must work together to solve the world's drug problem, not by losing ourselves in the shifting sands of pointless debates from extreme positions, but by basing ourselves on the firm foundation of hard, empirical evidence.”

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