UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Opioid Strategy Ignores What’s Most Proven to Work

    Earlier this year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched an initiative to tackle what they dubbed the “Global Opioid Crisis.” Recently, critics of the strategy have pointed out a glaring absence from the five-pillar approach: harm reduction.

    Launched in June and then rebranded in September, the Integrated Strategy on the Global Opioid Crisis outlines five approaches for an international response to an increasing global opioid market.

    Supply-side interventions—like “Rational Prescribing and Access to Opioids for Medical and Scientific Use,” “International Law Enforcement Operations to Disrupt Trafficking” and “Strengthening National and International Counternarcotic Capacity”—greatly outnumber the one user-focused response: “Prevention and Treatment Programmes.” (The other pillar, “Early Warning and Trend Analysis,” accounts for both supply and demand.)

    Damon Barrett, director of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, points out that the Integrated Strategy emphasizes policing, rather than public health, and doesn’t seem any different from the status quo approach to drugs in general:

    The strategy also seems to mirror President Donald Trump’s Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem, a document co-signed in September by 129 UN member states, that was seen as a call to revamp the global War on Drugs:

    Practically, the Integrated Strategy claims it will bring “together existing in-house programmes under one umbrella for a timely organization-wide response that leverages a unique set of coordinated activities and resources under five pillars,” as stated on one flyer.

    But among the “coordinated activities and resources,” harm reduction interventions like safer consumption spaces or syringe exchange programs remain absent, as noted by Leo Beletsky, associate professor of Law and Health Sciences at Northeastern University and faculty director of Health in Justice Action Lab.

    Beletsky says that harm reduction must not be left as a mere implication within the “Prevention and Treatment” Pillar. Instead, he writes:

    According to its motto, the Integrated Strategy aspires to “predict,” “prevent” and “protect.” Yet most of UNODC’s strategies provide the opposite of “protection” for people—by further entrenching criminalization and policing efforts, rather than aiming to make drug use safer with tools that are proven to do so.

    Image: UNODC

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