The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a subsidiary body of the United Nations, has in its 2010 annual report, recommended that governments place a significant number of plants under national control. The recommendations include that the ‘trafficking’ and preparation of these plant materials also be banned on an international level. This means that the use, possession, supply and cultivation of some of the world’s most revered plants and their preparations would be deemed a criminal offence if the INCB recommendations are followed.
The plants that will be affected by this are:
1. Khat (Catha edulis),
2. Ayahuasca, a preparation usually made from Banisteriopsiscaapi and Psychotriaviridis,
3. Peyote cactus (Lophophorawilliamsii),
4. Psychedelic mushrooms (Psilocybin- containing species),
6. Kratom (Mitragynaspeciosa),
7. Iboga (Tabernantheiboga) and
8. Salvia Divinorum.
Criminalising the use, supply and preparation of these plants is not only of questionable benefit and unsupported by scientific research, but it also breaches both the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). All of the plants in question have numerous health and socio-cultural benefits whereas they have few, if any, recorded health risks or addictive potential. What is more, most of the plants in question are the centre-point of legitimate and important religious use that has been recognised in courts around the world. Additionally, making recommendations such as this falls outside of the mandate of the INCB. We therefore urge you not to act upon these recommendations.
The reasons given by the INCB for their recommendations of harsh restrictions on these plants are essentially the increase in their recreational use. They define recreational use as being the consumption outside the traditional socio-economic context (1). Leaving aside the much more complex issue of whether the recreational use of mind-altering plants is criminally or morally ‘wrong’ in the first place, this line of reasoning ignores the data that is available that shows that prohibition does not decrease the recreational use of an illicit substance, but rather increases the deaths and damage done by use of the banned drugs. Portugal is an interesting opportunity to study the effects of decriminalising use of illicit drugs, where, contrary to expectations, decriminalisiation in 2001 did not significantly increase recreational use, but actually decreased problematic drug use and drug-related harm(9). As so clearly stated by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, “criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption” (2). If we wish to pursue an evidence-based approach to drug policy, then prohibiting a range of plants whose use is relatively rare is likely to be of no benefit.
The proposed control of these plants breaches both the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).The INCB fails to acknowledge the sacramental and cultural value of these plants and clouds the importance of their use by describing it as being predominantly recreational.As Dr Des Tramacchi, professor of Theology at the University of Queensland says,
“The vast majority of published material on these plants emphasises their sacred and sacramentalqualities. The literature … makesabundantly clear that the primary function of these plants throughout history and across cultures hasbeen, and will continue to be, as an adjunct to spirituality and epistemological insight.“
One such sacrament, Ayahuasca, which translates as ‘vine of the soul’, has archaeological finds that date its use back as far as 50AD (4,5). Iboga, used extensively in West Africa by members of the Bwiti religion is said to induce contact with ancestors and has a long and important history for these people (5,8). Another of the plants in question, Peyote, is believed to have been originally used as sacrament by the Chichimeca people as far back as 2000 years ago (5,6).
Criminalising anything that falls outside the above definition of ‘recreational’ would incriminate all indigenous peoples who may have been displaced from their traditional homelands through logging, mining, famine or war and who wish to continue their cultural practices of ritual and initiation. By advising that these plants and their derivatives be outlawed, the INCB are suggesting a breachof the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People of the UN for the use of their traditional plants and sacraments (10,11).
What is more, there are a number of groups around the world who are not necessarily ‘Indigenous’ people, but practice legitimate and safe use of some of these plants in a spiritual/religious context. An example of this is the SantoDaime Church, which operates around the world(3). The use of Ayahuasca by this group has been upheld as a legitimate religious right by the courts of USA, Brazil and The Netherlands (3). Others include, the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), Barquinha,Vegatalismo, many forms of Curanderismo and shamanism, Jurema and the Native AmericanChurch (NAC). As expressions of bona fidespiritual beliefs, these groups deserve the rights of protection and respect under the ICCPR which states that:
1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shallinclude freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, eitherindividually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or beliefin worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt areligion or belief of his choice.
Implementing the recommendations of the INCB would be vastly detrimental to the spiritual beliefs and practices of numerous legitimate spiritual groups and churches around the world.
The allegations that the INCB have made about the supposed health risks of these plants are unfounded. Although insufficient research has been carried out on these plants, what research has been done has, in the majority, shown them to have significant social, medicinal and psychological benefits. Perhaps some of the most significant of these in a modern context is their ability to resolve addiction to drugs such as crack cocaine, alcohol and heroine and the successful treatment of depression (2,4,6,7,8 and further reading). This success in treating addiction and abuse of drugs is highly ironic, as one of the allegations made by the INCB is that these plants have the potential for abuse. Covered here are two of the plants and their benefits as examples only:
- Charles Grob MD, professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at UCLA has found through his research that people using Ayahuasca experienced remission without reoccurrence of their addictions, depressions, anxiety disorders and even some physical ailments. Ayahuasca is currently being seriously considered and researched as an effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease. It is a strong purgative, an antibiotic, analgesic and disinfectant (4).
- Salvia Divinorum has been found to benefit a vast array of physical and psychological problems such as depression, PTSD, drug addiction, anxiety, OCD, Schizophrenia, sleep disorders, stomach disorders, chronic pain and arthritis (7).
As you can see, whereas the health benefits of many of these plants are well documented, there is very little, if any, research supporting the view that they are dangerous to human health, or habit forming.
Despite all of the solid and legitimate reasons that these recommendations not be followed, due to the significant harm and little benefit they would cause, there is a further reason that may seem trivial but is indeed quite substantial: by proposing this advice to the governing bodies of the UN the INCB have radically overstepped their mandate. This mandate is outlined by Hamid Ghodse (President of the INCB) in his forward to the report. Here he states the INCBs’ role is to secure ‘a sufficient supply of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances used for scientific and medical purposes’ (1, 3). Clearly this does NOT include recommendations of reform on control of plants. As such, these proposals should be considered illegitimate and not proposed by those best suited to make recommendations on international drug policy.
The plants mentioned in this report are of vital importance to many indigenous groups around the world, whether they are still located in their traditional homelands or not. They also form the basis of legitimate spiritual practicesof numerous peoples around the globe. These plants havemany known and as-yet-undiscovered benefits for medicine, psychiatry and the general wellbeing of society. Not only is their use as recreational substances limited, but they are not likely to be abused, or create health problems. The recommendations made by the INCB in their 2010 annual report should not be adopted into national or international drug control strategies.
(1) INCB, 2010, ‘Report of the International Narcotic Control Board for 2010’ points 284, 285 and forward, in International Narcotic Control Board- annual report, accessed 22nd July 2011, from <http://www.incb.org/incb/en/annual-report-2010.html>
(2) Global Commission on Drug Policy Report, available at www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/reportaccessed on 20/8/2011.
(3) Halpern, J.H., A.R. Sherwood, T. Passie, K.C. Blackwell, A.J. Ruttenber (2008) ‘Evidence of health and safety in American members of a religion who use a hallucinogenic sacrament.’Medical Science Monitor 14(8) 15-22.
(4) Know thyself, 2011, ‘Ayahuasca’, accessed 10th August 2011, from <http://www.know-thyself.org/ayahuasca.html>
(5) Evans Schultes R & Hofmann A 1992, ‘Plants of The Gods’, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.
(6) The world of plants, 2011, ‘Peyote and Religion’, accessed 10th August 2011, from <http://www.botanical-online.com/alacaloidespeyotehistoriaangles.htm>
(7) Salviatruth.com, 2010, ‘What you need to know about Salvia divinorum, accessed 11th August 2011, from <http://www.salviatruth.com/>
(8) Iboga foundation, 2011, ‘History and therapeutic uses’, in Information, accessed 11th August 2011, from <http://www.ibogafoundation.com/3/31/Therapeutic+uses/>
(9) Hughes, Caitlin Elizabeth, and Stevens, Alex. 2010. What Can We Learn From The Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?British Journal of Criminology (2010) 50 (6): 999-1022.First published online: July 21, 2010
(10) Jelsma, M 2010, ‘Mixed thoughts about the INCB’s latest report’, in Transnational Institute, accessed 22nd July 2011, from <http://www.tni.org/article/mixed-thoughts-about-incbs-latest-report>
(11) ICEERS, 2011, ‘Important Notice’, in What we do-campaigns, accessed 22nd July 2011, from < http://iceers.org/what-we-do/campaigns.html>
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