UN calls for end to online drugs trade
Alan Travis, home affairs editor
Wednesday March 3, 2004
face=Arial color=#0000ff The Guardian
A United Nations drug agency yesterday urged governments to crack down on the growth of "internet pharmacies" illicitly shipping narcotic and mood-changing drugs to Britain and other parts of Europe.
The International Narcotics Control Board, launching its annual report in London yesterday, said that governments, including Britain, needed to ensure that such trafficking over the internet was a criminal offence.
The INCB, which is the policing arm of the UN's "war on drugs", also criticises governments, including Britain, for not taking "measures" against the incitement of drug abuse within the media arguing that an ambiguity in attitudes towards drug abuse is common in western Europe.
But Professor Hamid Ghodse, of St George's hospital in Tooting, south London, and the British member of the INCB, said the UN had dropped its hostility to Britain's decision to downgrade the classfication of cannabis.
Last year the board warned that the move would lead to "dangerous, worldwide repercussions" but yesterday Prof Ghodse said the UN had satisfied itself that the change did not amount to either legalisation or decriminalisation although it still had doubts about its impact on African cannabis production.
The INCB's annual report on the enforcement of the international drug treaties also confirms the revival in the Afghan opium crop with 3,600 tonnes produced in 2003 - a 6% increase over the previous year. The report says that 75% of western Europe's heroin supplies still come from Afghanistan.
The UN's drug agency is, however, sharply critical of those countries in eastern Europe which have adopted "harm reduction" measures such as needle exchange programmes and safe injecting rooms to tackle the spread of HIV/Aids infection. Campaigners yesterday condemned this stance as "an irresponsible denial of HIV/Aids threats".
The INCB's annual report says that the increase in cyber trafficking of pharmaceutical products, including internationally controlled prescription drugs, has expanded because of the uneven and lax implementation around the globe of laws controlling the internet.
Prof Ghodse said a snapshot survey of US websites found 150 which were advertising pharmaceutical drugs for sale without a prescription. He said that they included analgesics, tranquillisers and hypnotic sedatives. Although many were only for shipping within the USA they were also being smuggled by post to other countries.
He said they were also concerned about psychotropic or mood-changing substances being offered for sale through internet pharmacies based in Thailand, India and Pakistan for delivery in Britain and other parts of Europe. Even ritalin and some amphetamine-type stimulants have been sold via the internet.
A main reason for such sales was the "dangerously widespread perception" that the misuse of prescription drugs was not as harmful as the misuse of illegal drugs, said the INCB report. Internet pharmacies play a major role in the illicit supply of drugs, it added.
The INCB says the sheer volume of letters and parcels posted daily around the world makes it extremely difficult for the police and customs to detect illicit shipments and to identify sources of supply. Even when people are prosecuted the agency says too often judges pass lenient sentences in such cases.