The sources of illegal drugs - the yellow and black poppy fields, and the green expanses of marijuana plants and coca bushes - have long been primary targets of international efforts to combat drug abuse. But now, with substance abuse at alarming levels (an estimated 48 million people worldwide now regularly use illicit drugs), the success of past efforts at drug control is under critical review in Vienna. At the UN International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, which opens today, government ministers and antidrug organizations from more than 110 countries are spending nine days looking at the world's drug abuse problem from a new perspective.
For the first time, both sides of the supply-and-demand equation are being examined on a worldwide scale. Tamar Oppenheimer, conference secretary-general, states, ``In addition to strengthening the international community's activities on supply reduction and on the illicit trafficking in drugs ... [the conference] will also focus attention on demand reduction and on the treatment of drug addicts and their rehabilitation into society.''
Representatives to the conference, mostly health and social service ministers of the UN member countries, are hoping to strengthen existing treaties, which focus almost exclusively on drug trafficking.
In addition, they will be turning their attention to the victims of drug abuse, and looking for options for international cooperation in stemming the demand for drugs.
By the end of the conference, organizers expect two documents to emerge. The first is called the ``Comprehensive Multidisciplinary Outline,'' which sets out 35 action targets considered ``realistically attainable'' over the next 10 to 15 years. Those targets include:
Assessment of the extent of drug abuse;
Prevention of drug abuse in the workplace;
Care for drug-addicted offenders in prison;
Social reintegration of rehabilitated drug abusers;
Using the media (entertainment and news) to combat drug abuse. None of these areas are covered in existing treaties.
The second major document is expected to be a declaration that sets priorities for future action. This document might contain calls for public and private sector contributions for an international antidrug crackdown, or plans to coordinate worldwide law enforcement efforts against the new wave of ``designer drugs'' - new chemical compounds created expressly for sale on the black market as ``recreational'' drugs.
Governments have found it increasingly difficult to cope with the expansion of illicit drug trafficking. In May 1985, UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar sounded the keynote for change in existing international antidrug efforts. Calling for a ``bold new offensive'' against drug abuse, he proposed a world conference to address the inadequacies of existing instruments of drug control. The proposals generated at the Vienna drug conference will be presented for action at the next session of the UN General Assembly in September.
Though Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar has pledged to ``mobilize the full potential'' of the UN system in the war against drugs, workers in the field of substance abuse prevention note that it will take more than recommendations to antidote the world's drug problems. Any prescription for the drug abuse ``plague,'' they say, counts on the political will of all of the countries involved.
International cooperation in drug abuse control dates back to 1909, when a conference in Shanghai of ``The Opium Commission'' laid the groundwork for the first drug control treaty, the International Opium Convention, signed in 1912 at The Hague.
In 1920, the League of Nations picked up responsibility for international drug control. The duty was ultimately inherited by the United Nations in 1946 through the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.
Today's international control system is based on two UN documents: the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971. The main objective of both documents is to control the supply of drugs in order to limit availability exclusively for scientific and medicinal applications.