Methadone Legal under the UN Drug Conventions, according to...the UN Drug Conventions!

Date: 19 June 2008

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1988+cover.jpgOver the past week, the HR2 team has been reading through our recently arrived (and notoriously difficult to obtain) copies of the Official Commentaries on the 1961, 1971 and 1988 UN Drug Conventions, as well as the Commentary to the 1972 Protocol amending the 1961 Convention.

These four volumes, each several hundred pages in length, are the official explanatory notes from the UN itself to member states on how to interpret each of the articles in the Conventions. In essence, the Commentaries put ‘meat on the bone’ in providing detailed guidance to states on what the drug conventions mean, don’t mean and how they are to be interpreted and implemented.

Already we are finding some interesting material.

For example, the Commentary on the 1988 Convention under Article 3 (Offences and Sanctions) expressly recognises methadone as a legitimate form of treatment. To quote the Commentary:

‘The 1971 Convention and the 1961 Convention as amended by the 1972 Protocol include a provision (identical in the two texts) to the effect that when drug abusers have committed offences under the Convention, the parties may provide, either as an alternative to conviction or punishment or in addition to conviction or punishment, that such abusers undergo measures of treatment, education, aftercare rehabilitation or social integration. Paragarph 4, subparagraphs (b), (c) and (d), of the 1988 Convention, while drawing upon that earlier provision, widen the scope of application to drug offenders in general, whether abusers or not.’ (at para 3.106) [emphasis added]

Leaving aside the antiquated language of ‘abusers’, what the 1988 Commentary reiterates is the support found in all three Conventions for drug treatment instead of, or in addition to, penal sanctions for drug offences. This is not news. What is interesting, however, is where the Commentary on the 1988 Convention goes on to define what the Conventions mean by ‘treatment’.

As stated in paragraph 3.109 of the Commentary:

‘”Treatment” will typically include individual counselling, group counselling or referral to a support group, which may involve out-patient day care, day support, in-patient care or therapeutic community support. A number of treatment facilities may prescribe pharmacological treatment such as methadone maintenance, but referrals are most frequently to drug-free programmes.’ [emphasis added]

Paragraph 3.110 of the Commentary also lists 'a maintenance programme' within the definition of legitimate - and therefore legal - 'aftercare' programmes.

But the 1988 Commentary is not the only one that cites substitution treatment as a legitimate and legal intervention.

The Commentary on the 1971 Convention also lists 'medically justified "maintenance systems"' under the definition of 'treatment' (at page 332, para 3, fn 1080) and a 'maintenance programme' within the definition of 'after-care' (at page 332, para 4). The Commentary to the 1972 Protocol to the 1961 Convention similarly lists 'medically justified "maintenance programmes"' within the definition of 'treatment' (at page 84, para 3, fn 4) as well as under 'after-care' (at page 85, para 4).

So according to the official UN Commentaries, methadone maintenance is an accepted form of treatment and after-care under all three Drug Conventions, and is explicitly recognised as being legally consistent with the definition of these terms under the Conventions.

This will certainly come as news to the Russian Government, which prohibits methadone on the claim that it is illegal under the Conventions. As stated by Russia’s Minister of Internal Affairs Boris Gryzlov in 2003, the country’s prohibition of methadone was ‘not the government’s own initiative…but rather the result of our responsibility to implement the UN drug conventions of 1961, 1971, and 1988.’

Just the opposite, methadone is expressly allowed under all three Conventions according to the official Commentaries.

It might also come as news to the International Narcotics Control Board, whose record of luke-warm support for methadone is chronicled in the excellent 'Closed to Reason' report produced by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and the Open Society Institute.

For the benefit of the Russian Government, the INCB and the many others who could benefit from access from these hard-to-find Commentaries, Harm Reduction International is currently working with Transform Drug Policy Foundation to make them available online.

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