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U.N. Drug Conference Aims For "Drug-Free World;" Reformers Launch Media Response, Worldwide Protest


May-June 1998

On June 8-10, thirty heads of state and 150 delegates from around the world gathered for a special U.N. session to discuss strategies for combating the supply and demand of illicit drugs. The U.N. drug summit marks the tenth anniversary of the 1988 U.N. Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. NewsBriefs staff attended the summit (Christopher Wren, "International Effort Pledged to Curb Demand for Illegal Drugs," New York Times, June 11, 1998, p. A13; Anthony Goodman, "World leaders convene to target drug trafficking," Washington Times, June 8, 1998, p. A17).

The conference was led by Pino Arlacchi, the head of the U.N. International Drug Control Program (UNDCP). Arlacchi is a former Italian parliamentarian who is credited for effectively battling the Mafia and organized crime in Italy. U.N. delegates adopted and agreed to finance Arlacchi's $5 billion, 10-year strategy to eradicate opium poppy and coca plants worldwide. Arlacchi's plan aims to reduce illicit drug supply mostly through crop substitution and economic development in drug producing countries, and to reduce illicit drug demand through treatment, prevention and law enforcement (William Dowell, "Man with a Grand Plan," Time, June 15, 1998, p. 40, see "United Nations Offers 10-Year Opiate Eradication Plan," NewsBriefs, November-December 1997).

U.N. delegates also promised to curb money laundering, examine the growth of synthetic drug manufacturing and use; increase judicial cooperation including extradition; and tighten controls on precursor chemicals used to make illicit drugs.

According to the UNDCP, about 200 million people (4% of the world population) are considered regular drug abusers. The illicit drug trade is a $400 billion industry representing 8% of total international trade.

The drug summit was originally suggested by Mexico three years ago to address drug-related issues plaguing that nation. Originally, the drug summit was scheduled to examine critically current anti-drug strategies and address alternatives, but that examination was removed from the agenda. Organizations advocating alternative drug policies were not allowed formally to participate in the summit. However, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including anti-drug and reform organizations, were allowed to hold panels at a church across the street from the U.N. and set up booths in the lobby of the U.N. to distribute information. Members of reform groups were allowed to listen to U.N. drug summit panels and some managed to address questions to the panels.

On June 8, President Clinton addressed the U.N. special session where he announced a 5-year, $2 billion "Anti-Drug Youth Media Campaign" that would expand the $195 million media campaign approved this year. The President said he would request more than $17 billion for the next federal anti-drug budget, $6 billion of which will allegedly be used for demand reduction. Finally, he announced creation of a "Virtual University for the Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse," in which experts worldwide will share knowledge and strategy via the Internet and other media, and an "International Drug Fellowship Program," in which experts worldwide will attend anti-drug training courses in the U.S. (Christopher Wren, "At Drug Summit, Clinton Asks Nations to Set Aside Blame," New York Times, June 9, 1998, p. A6; Andrea Stone, "Clinton launches new drug war," USA Today, June 9, 1998, p. 6A).

The drug summit prompted a debate between so-called drug-consuming and drug-producing countries, and the value of demand-reduction versus supply-reduction as anti-drug strategies. President Clinton asked participants in the U.N. drug summit to stop "pointing fingers" and urged them to increase cooperation, but to no avail. President of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo, for example, rejected American criticism of Mexico's anti-drug effort. He said in his address, "It is our men and women who first die combating drug trafficking. ... Our communities are the first to suffer from violence, and our institutions are the first undermined by corruption."


In his remarks on June 8, Zedillo expressed anger over a three-year U.S. undercover investigation, known as "Operation Casablanca," where U.S. officials investigated major Mexican banking institutions for laundering illicit drug profits. The U.S. did not inform Mexican officials of the investigation or adhere to Mexican law. "We all must respect the sovereignty of each nation so that no one becomes a judge of others, so that no one feels entitled to violate other countries' laws for the sake of enforcing its own," Zedillo said. Zedillo and Clinton met later in the day to discuss the dispute (Stanley Meisler and Jonathan Peterson, "Acrimony Is Tinging Statement on Drugs by U.S. and Mexico," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), June 9, 1998, p. A2; David LaGesse, "Mexico leader attacks U.S. acts in drug war," Dallas Morning News, June 9, 1998; Nancy Mathis, "U.S., Mexico mend fence over sting," Houston Chronicle, June 9, 1998

"Operation Casablanca" led U.S. Customs agents to arrest 22 high-ranking and mid-level bankers from 12 of Mexico's largest banks when they traveled to the U.S. in mid-May. Some Mexican officials were drawn to the U.S. because the sting operation was disguised as a banking conference. Others were drawn to a staged casino grand opening in Nevada. The investigation culminated in 160 indictments, including 3 Mexican banks and 26 Mexican bankers (Don Van Natta Jr., U.S. Indicts 26 Mexican Bankers in Laundering of Drug Funds," New York Times, May 19, 1998, p. A6; Douglas Farah, "Mexican Banks Laundered Drug Money, U.S. Charges," Washington Post, May 19, 1998, p. A1; Douglas Rosenzweig and Mary Beth Sheridan, "Mexican Banks Indicted in Drug Money Probe," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), May 19, 1998, p. A1; Julia Preston, "Mexicans Belittle Drug-Money Sting," New York Times, May 20, 1998, p. A6; Joel Millman, "Drug Charges Hurt Mexico's Bid to Lift Bank Supervision," Wall Street Journal, May 21, 1998, p. A10).

Mexican officials accused "Operation Casablanca" of violating Mexican laws and sovereignty. Mexico Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuéllar said Mexico may pursue legal action against people involved in the operation. On May 26, White House spokesperson Michael McCurry said, "President Clinton expressed regret that better prior consultation had not been possible in this case." On June 11, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked Mexico to refrain from indicting U.S. agents. A Los Angeles Times editorial said, "Washington should not stage operations in Mexico without the approval of President Zedillo or one of his Cabinet ministers" (Julia Preston, "Mexico Faults U.S. Secrecy In Bank Sting Of Drug Profit," New York Times, May 22, 1998, p. A3; Associated Press, "U.S. Fumbled On Mexico Sting, Clinton Says," New York Times, May 27, 1998, p. A3; Julia Preston, "Mexico to Prosecute U.S. Agents Who Ran an Anti-Drug Sting," New York Times, June 4, 1998, p. A5; Tim Golden, "U.S. Drug Sting Riles Mexico Imperiling Future Cooperation," New York Times, June 11, 1998, p. A1; Stanley Meisler, "U.S., Mexico Stress Relations, Cooperation at Conference," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), June 11, 1998, p. A3; Stanley Meisler, "Albright Urges Mexico to Drop Threat in Sting," Lost Angeles Times (Washington Edition), June 12, 1998, p. A2, Editorial, "A Costly Sting in Mexico," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), June 12, 1998, p. A22).


Worldwide protest of the U.N. drug summit, called "Global Days Against the Drug War," was carried out in several major cities across the globe. Reform rallies and press conferences took place in Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Auckland, Dallas, Houston, Madrid, New York, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Tel Aviv and other cities. At a news conference in Houston, Jerry Epstein, president of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, said, "We can teach our children personal responsibility and protect them from drugs, but we cannot protect them from the crime, violence and corruption of the black market, or from the abuse of power. . .that occur in the futile fight against that market" ("Drugs and the UN," Orange County Register, June 5, 1998; Joe Costanzo, "Protestors at S.L. Rally Decry U.N. War on Drugs," Deseret (Salt Lake City), June 8, 1998; R.A. Dyer, "Activists say the effort is only causing crime and corruption," Houston Chronicle, June 9, 1998, p. 15A; see "Global Protest Scheduled For UN Drug Policy Meeting in June," NewsBriefs, March-April 1998).

In New York City on June 8, demonstrators marched through Manhattan to the U.N. to protest the Clinton Administration's failure to lift the ban on federal funding of needle exchanges despite its findings that such programs reduce HIV transmission and do not encourage drug use. About 200 protestors chanted slogans such as "How many more have to die before you lift the ban?" and carried signs, mock coffins and a grim-reaper made to look like the President. Clinton was still at the U.N. when the protestors arrived.


In an open letter to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that appeared in a two-page advertisement in the New York Times on June 8, over 500 leaders from around the world signed a letter urging that the UN's existing drug policy be reexamined and the debate be opened. The letter and advertisement were organized and financed by the Lindesmith Center in New York City (Advertisement, New York Times, June 8, 1998, pp. A14-A15; Associated Press, "Leaders Ask UN for New Drug Policy," San Francisco Chronicle, June 6, 1998, p. A13; Jeremy Mercer, "Leaders Attack UN War on Drugs," Ottawa Citizen, June 6, 1998; "Protest to UN Claims War on Drugs Worse Than Abuse," The Guardian (United Kingdom), June 6, 1998; Christopher Wren, "Anti-Drug Effort Criticized As More Harm Than Help," New York Times, June 9, 1998, p. A6; Alan Attwood, "Drug summit global war being fought the wrong way, US told," Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), June 10, 1998).

The text of the letter to Secretary General Annan follows:

Dear Secretary General,

On the occasion of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in New York on June 8-10, 1998, we seek your leadership in stimulating a frank and honest evaluation of global drug control efforts.

We are all deeply concerned about the threat that drugs pose to our children, our fellow citizens and our societies. There is no choice but to work together, both within our countries and across borders, to reduce the harms associated with drugs. The United Nations has a legitimate and important role to play in this regard -- but only if it is willing to ask and address tough questions about the success or failure of its efforts.

We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.

Every decade the United Nations adopts new international conventions, focused largely on criminalization and punishment, that restrict the ability of individual nations to devise effective solutions to local drug problems. Every year governments enact more punitive and costly drug control measures. Every day politicians endorse harsher new drug war strategies.

What is the result? U.N. agencies estimate the annual revenue generated by the illegal drug industry at $400 billion, or the equivalent of roughly eight per cent of total international trade. This industry has empowered organized criminals, corrupted governments at all levels, eroded internal security, stimulated violence, and distorted both economic markets and moral values. These are the consequences not of drug use per se, but of decades of failed and futile drug war policies.

In many parts of the world, drug war politics impede public health efforts to stem the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. Human rights are violated, environmental assaults perpetrated and prisons inundated with hundreds of thousands of drug law violators. Scarce resources better expended on health, education and economic development are squandered on ever more expensive interdiction efforts. Realistic proposals to reduce drug-related crime, disease and death are abandoned in favor of rhetorical proposals to create drug-free societies.

Persisting in our current policies will only result in more drug abuse, more empowerment of drug markets and criminals, and more disease and suffering. Too often those who call for open debate, rigorous analysis of current policies, and serious consideration of alternatives are accused of "surrendering." But the true surrender is when fear and inertia combine to shut off debate, suppress critical analysis, and dismiss all alternatives to current policies.

Mr. Secretary General, we appeal to you to initiate a truly open and honest dialogue regarding the future of global drug control policies -- one in which fear, prejudice and punitive prohibitions yield to common sense, science, public health and human rights.

Signatories of the letter dated June 6 include: former UN General Secretary Javier Perez de Cuellar; former Secretary of State George Shultz; broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite; former White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler; former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach; former U.S. Senators Alan Cranston and Claiborne Pell; Robert Strauss; and Laurence Rockefeller. Many top government officials, judges, elected officials, professors, Nobel Prize winners, and business leaders from aroung the world signed the letter. Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, was one of the lesser known signers. Network members who signed the letter include Peter Beilenson, William Chambliss, Steven Duke, Robert Field, Ira Glasser, Mike Gray, Terrence Hallinan, Sher Horosko, Rufus King, Mike Lawlor, Harry Levine, John Morgan, Patrick Murphy, Craig Reinarman, Marsha Rosenbaum, G. Alan Robison, Arnold Trebach and Lynn Zimmer.

Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, said, "I think that when people look back on the U.N. drugs summit 1998, it is not going to be because of the platitudes," it will be because it was "a moment at which the truly international movement for drug reform begun."

"Drug czar" Barry McCaffrey called the letter "a 1950's perception" of the drug problem. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, said, "There's no chance that we're going to throw up our hands and walk away from what we think is a predominantly public health issue."

The advertised letter provoked acerbic responses from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and columnist A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times. The WSJ editorialized: "The letter is mostly the sort of high-minded pabulum needed to attract such famous names." The WSJ said that the letter was part of billionaire George Soros' "legalization" campaign, which it compared to sanitizing "pedophilia and child prostitution." Rosenthal said that the letter was organized by "legalizers" who hide under "one camouflage or another." Rosenthal insisted that "it is time for the President to dissect America's legalizers and publicly point the finger at them." (Editorial, "500 Drug Geniuses," Wall Street Journal, June 10, 1998; A.M. Rosenthal, "Pointing the Finger," New York Times, June 12, 1998, p. A23).


On June 9, the New York Times published an editorial about the U.N. drug conference titled "Cheerleaders Against Drugs" (Editorial, "Cheerleaders Against Drugs," New York Times, June 9, 1998, p. A26). To access the article on the web for a fee, go to <> and type the title of the editorial under the heading called "Search For."

The complete text of the editorial follows:

Manhattan is filled this week with world leaders attending a well-intentioned but misdirected United Nations conference on drugs. With drugs more plentiful and cheaper than ever worldwide, the leaders are mostly extolling failed strategies to combat the problem. Pino Arlacchi, the Italian official who heads the organization's International Drug Control Program, is promising to eliminate coca leaf and opium poppies, the basis of cocaine and heroin, in 10 years. Such claims get in the way of effective programs to reduce drug use.

Mr. Arlacchi's proposal, which is likely to be approved, would attempt to cut drug cultivation by bringing roads, schools and other development to drug areas. The notion sounds reasonable, and it is surely better to help farmers than to finance a militarized war on drugs, which has torn apart societies and built up some of the world's most repressive armies. But elements of Mr. Arlacchi's plan are unrealistic and harmful. Half the funding would supposedly come from drug-producing nations themselves, an unlikely prospect. Mr. Arlacchi would also make partners out of such abusive and unreliable governments as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the military in Myanmar.

While there is a place for crop substitution, law enforcement, interdiction and other programs to cut drug supply, these steps rarely deliver promised results. Where crop substitution has been successful, drug cultivation has simply moved next door.

The conference has seen a welcome increase in talk about the duties of drug-consuming countries, but its proposals are still tilted toward attacking supply. Studies show that treatment programs are far more cost-effective than efforts overseas. But it is politically safer to advocate fighting drugs abroad than treating addicts at home.

The U.N. kept off the program virtually all the citizens' groups and experts who wanted to speak. There is no discussion of some interesting new ideas such as harm reduction, which focuses on programs like needle exchanges and methadone that cut the damage drugs do. Like previous U.N. drug conferences, this one seems designed primarily to recycle unrealistic pledges and celebrate dubious programs.


Beginning on June 4, Common Sense for Drug Policy (CSDP), a Virginia-based public policy organization, began a $60,000 advertisement campaign on CNN and other outlets. The advertisement was timed to coincide with the UN drug summit. The ad is a video of President Clinton at the UN with an overdubbed voice imitating the President and an explicit visual disclaimer that it is not President Clinton giving an address urging a change in drug policy.

The script for the advertisement that appeared on CNN follows:

VIDEO: Clinton walking into UN and then speaking at podium

VOICE OVER: On June 8, President Clinton will be addressing the United Nations about the war on drugs. This is what he should say:

VOICE IMITATING PRESIDENT CLINTON: [Out of sync with his speaking] Do you think the war on drugs is a complete failure? I do. Do you think if we spend more money we'll win? Forget it. We're wasting 17 billion dollars a year now. And, because we put hundreds of thousands of people in prison for drug offenses, prisons are too full so we put violent criminals out on the street. Heck, we're causing more crime than we are stopping. Isn't it time for a drug policy based on Common Sense?"

On June 4, CSDP received a letter from Meredith E. Cabe , Associate Counsel to President Clinton, which stated that the advertisement "completely misstates the President's position on the problem of illegal drugs in this country" and "violates a long standing White House policy against the use of the image of the President in advertising or promotional materials in any way that suggests a linkage between the President and the product, service, or enterprise being advertised. Superimposing someone else's words over videotape of the President speaking is confusing, if not deceptive, and is potentially actionable." The letter concludes that the White House "insist[s] that your organization discontinue that advertisement" (Meredith E. Cabe, Letter to Common Sense for Drug Policy, June 5, 1998; Greg Pierce, "President objects," Washington Times, June 8, 1998, p. A6; "Clinton Upstaged," New Zealand Herald (Auckland), June 9, 1998).

CSDP "emphatically rejected" the White House demand. In a response letter on June 7 to Cabe, Kevin Zeese, president of CSDP, wrote: "The White House should not be engaged in an effort to prevent us from expressing political views through [its] assertion of bogus legal rights or remedies. Throughout history, governments incapable of defending their policies on the merits stifle speech that expresses opposition to their failed ideas. It is a great sadness to us that our President, rather than engaging us in debate, would instead act to try and prevent us from debating at all" (Kevin Zeese, Letter to White House Associate Counsel Meredith E. Cabe, June 7, 1998).

White house response to the ad prompted coverage of the issue on the national ABC Evening News on Sunday, June 7.

Common Sense For Drug Policy - 3619 Tallwood Terrace. Falls Church, VA 22041, Tel: (703) 354-5694, Fax: (703) 354-5695, E-mail: <>. The CDSP advertisement can be viewed at <>. Video copies in Beta, VHS and PAL formats are available from CSDP.

United Nations Drug Control Program - Office of Drug and Crime Prevention, 1 UN Plaza, D.C. 1-613, New York, NY 10017, Tel: (212) 963-5634, Fax: (212) 963-4185.

Lindesmith Center, Ethan Nadelmann - 400 West 59th St., New York, NY 10019, Tel: (212) 548-0695, Fax: (212) 548-4677.