Flexibility of treaty provisions

as Regards Harm Reduction Approaches
UNODC Legal Affairs Section
30 September 2002

In a confidential and authoritative memorandum to the INCB, UNODC legal experts argue that most harm reduction measures are in fact acceptable under the conventions. According to the Legal Affairs Section "it could easily be argued that the Guiding Principles of Drug Demand Reduction provide a clear mandate for the institution of harm reduction policies that, respecting cultural and gender differences, provide for a more supportive environment for drug users."

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On methadone substitution treatment the UNODC experts say that it "could hardly be perceived as contrary to the text or the spirit of the treaties. It is a commonly accepted addiction treatment, with several advantages and few drawbacks. Although results are mixed and dependent on many factors, its implementation along sound medical practice guidelines would not constitute a breach of treaty provisions."

On needle- or syringe-exchange the document says that this is a "rather straightforward strategy to reduce the risk of contagion with communicable diseases to IV drug abusers [intravenous] who share needles or syringes. It has been introduced in many countries around the world, to help reduce the rate of intravenous transmission of HIV and other transmittable diseases."

About drug-injection rooms, the legal advice given is that "even supplying a drug addict with the drug he depends on could be seen as a sort of rehabilitation and social reintegration, assuming that once his drug requirements are taken care of, he will not need to involve himself in criminal activities to finance his dependence" and that it "would be difficult to assert that, in establishing drug-injection rooms, it is the intent of Parties to actually incite to or induce the illicit use of drugs, or even more so, to associate with, aid, abet or facilitate the possession of drugs. [..] On the contrary, it seems clear that in such cases the intention of governments is to provide healthier conditions for IV drug abusers, thereby reducing their risk of infection with grave transmittable diseases and, at least in some cases, reaching out to them with counselling and other therapeutic options. Albeit how insufficient this may look from a demand reduction point of view, it would still fall far from the intent of committing an offence as foreseen in the 1988 Convention."

Finally, addressing the remaining doubts about a potential tense legal footing of some treaty articles with harm reduction, the document states, refering to the HIV/AIDS crisis: "It could even be argued that the drug control treaties, as they stand, have been rendered out of synch with reality, since at the time they came into force they could not have possibly foreseen these new threats."