Why do you agree with WHO operational recommendations regarding drugs?

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has made numerous operational recommendations about the world drug problem. As the question does not specify one particular set of recommendations, this answer addresses a few of its recent publications that contain recommendations. A significant increase in attention to the human rights dimensions of drug use seems to be a promising development, as this emphasis locates drugs and the public health crisis within the larger social and political arenas.

Some recommendations are contained in reports by the WHO Secretariat for dissemination at the World Health Assemblies. The Secretariat’s reports address the public health components of a comprehensive, balanced drug policy. Many of these components relate to recommendations made during United Nations General Assembly (UNGASS) sessions.

In 2017, for example, the WHO Secretariat’s report published in relation to the sixty-ninth World Health Assembly addressed the concerns of UN Member States, endorsing the need for a balanced and public health approach to the world drug problem. Among the operational recommendations is strengthened cooperation between WHO and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), as well as several other UN entities and UN Member States.

According to the 2015 WHO document entitled WHO’s role, mandate and activities to counter the world drug problem: A public health perspective (available as a PDF on its website), the organization is involved in numerous activities related to the 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action on International Cooperation towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem. WHO engages in activities in several areas, especially the prevention of drug use and treatment of drug use disorders, the prevention and management of drug-related bloodborne infections (including HIV and viral hepatitis), and improving access to controlled medicines.

As the primary international organization tasked with health, WHO is not only well positioned but has a responsibility for active involvement in these areas. As the 2009 report states,

WHO is the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system and is responsible for providing leadership on global health matters.

Specific elements of its charge regarding the public health consequences of drug use focus on:

prevention and treatment of substance use disorders, the review and assessment of substances by the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence, prevention and treatment of bloodborne infections (such as HIV and viral hepatitis) to reduce the harms related to injecting drug use, improved access to health services (including access to controlled medicines) in order to fulfil the universal health coverage agenda and ensure equitable access to all as a human rights principle, and provision of support to prevent injuries, violence, tobacco use and the harmful use of alcohol.

The 2019 joint publication by the United Nations Development Program, WHO, and UNAIDS, International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy, explains the inter-organizational support for the centralization of human rights standards in the drug-control context. The recommendations concern states’ possible and recommended actions to promote peoples’ safety, security, well-being and rights in regard to drug policy and practices.

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Whether you agree with the WHO Operational Recommendations on the War on Drugs depends on which one you are talking about, since there are actually many different ones that each address particular aspects of the drug epidemic. Because the WHO is a specialized agency within the United Nations, Operational Recommendations that are passed based on policies that are worked out at meetings of the General Assembly reflect the interests of the WHO and all other agencies concerned with the issue.

In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly held a Special Session in which they discussed goals to be achieved in the prevention of drug use by 2019. The resulting document outlined many Operational Recommendations that the member states committed themselves to moving forward.

As an example, we might consider the first Operational Recommendation concerned with reducing the demand of drugs, prevention, and treatment. UN member nations committed themselves to maintaining public health and promoting healthy lifestyles via scientifically-defensible strategies. In considering just one of the subtopics—Prevention of Drug Abuse—we might go through the UN’s suggested course of action point by point and see if there are areas that could use improvement. My following comments are in reference to the points elaborated upon in the document from pages 4-5.

On the surface, points a through c seem reasonable, but they are vaguely worded and might belie the practical costs of implementation on a large enough scale. For example, point c recommends reaching out to youths in school through drug-abuse prevention programs and public awareness campaigns. This may be an effective technique that could genuinely stymie the influence of a drug-abusive subculture in targeted schools. But the question might arise as to who will be responsible for paying for these programs. Are they to be ongoing yearly events, or will they occur only occasionally? How will individual schools be able to afford hiring new staff that are specifically trained in administering such educative programs? Will all of this require an overall increase in federal taxes? Will it be payed for by federal governments at all, or will it be strictly a community affair? In principle, these sub-points appear to be common-sense notions and one might agree with their surface-level proclamations. However, answers to these deeper questions could problematize these very comprehensive and complicated recommendations.

Point h emphasizes the need to improve the systematic collection of information regarding drug abuse at both the national and international levels. Again, who primarily will be responsible for this? At the international level, for example, will responsibility for creating and maintaining these information networks fall upon the wealthiest member nations? And how can information be systematized regarding the abuse of substances like marijuana and alcohol, the use of which is legal in some member states but illegal in others? Again, this defies an easy, black and white answer to the general question as to whether you agree with the Recommendations or not.

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