Director-General's Office

Opening remarks at the 60th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Vienna, Austria
13 March 2017

Ambassador Bente Angell-Hansen, Chair of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Mr Fedotov, Executive Director of UNODC, Mr Sipp, President of INCB, heads of agencies, honourable ministers, representatives of government, youth, civil society organizations, and foundations, ladies and gentlemen,

I welcome the opportunity to address this 60th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. It is truly a great pleasure and good opportunity to meet a lot of old friends.

WHO respects the mandate of the Commission as the central UN policy-making body on narcotic drugs, working to oversee application of the three narcotics conventions. Allow me to quote the comment from the youth leader "Health is at the centre of the response". Thank you

As a public health agency, WHO is committed to continue to play its role in addressing the critical public health elements of the world drug problem. WHO’s treaty-based obligation is undertaken by the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence.

This long-standing Expert Committee keeps psychoactive substances under constant review, balancing their potential for abuse against evidence of a known and unique therapeutic benefit.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime is the leading agency directly responsible for combatting the world drug problem. WHO places particular importance on our joint work on the treatment of drug dependence and care of drug users.

In fact, WHO guidelines and the harm reduction package of interventions, set out in a joint WHO/UNODC/UNAIDS technical guide, are the principal tools used by countries that have adopted a public health approach to the harms caused by drug use.

Last month, WHO and UNODC signed a memorandum of understanding that opens up a new and stronger level of structured and productive collaboration between our two agencies. Both agencies would like to see more drug users channelled through the public health system instead of through the courts and the criminal justice system.

WHO is pleased that the outcome document of last year’s UN General Assembly special session on the world drug problem shows commitment to drug policies that give prominence to public health needs and solutions.

In the context of comprehensive and balanced efforts to reduce the demand for drugs, the outcome document gives attention to prevention of drug use and recovery-oriented treatment as well as to measures aimed at minimizing the adverse public health and social consequences of drug use, including programmes that rely on medication-assisted therapies and the exchange of injection equipment. In other words, in the WHO terminology: harm reduction.

The outcome document further recognizes the huge problem caused by HIV, viral hepatitis, and other blood-borne infectious diseases that can be transmitted by injecting drug use.

It also addresses the medical needs of drug users, including treatment with antiretroviral therapy for people infected with HIV, and the use of the newer therapeutic regimens that can cure hepatitis C. This is very important. It makes a difference between life and death.

The outcome document includes well-worded recommendations to assist countries in improving access to controlled essential medicines for use in patient care, for example, to relieve pain in cancer patients.

It shows a strong commitment to help countries remove the many barriers, ranging from legislation policies to prices, which limit access to controlled but essential medicines.

Taking the right actions has become even more important with recent World Health Assembly resolutions on palliative care and epilepsy that mandate improved access to controlled medicines.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We must never forget that the ultimate objective of drug control policies is to save lives. WHO estimates that drug use is responsible for around half a million deaths each year, but this figure represents only a small part of the harm caused by the world drug problem.

In some ways, the situation is getting worse, not better. Many countries are experiencing a crisis of health emergencies and deaths from drug overdoses.

Nearly everyone in this room will know parents, or will have read about parents, who have a child with a drug problem. These parents want their child in treatment, not in jail. It is good to see so many items on your agenda that address strategies for preventing drug use, especially in youth.

As countries and international agencies continue to grapple with the world drug problem in its many dimensions, WHO urges that policies be based on the medical and scientific evidence, and not on emotions or ideology.

Rest assured that WHO will continue to work on public health dimensions of the world drug problem in collaboration with relevant UN agencies, including UNODC and other partners, and keep these efforts high on the agenda in forthcoming sessions of our governing bodies.

I wish you a most productive meeting.

Thank you.