UN Newsspoke to Mr. Sumyai, a national of Thailand, during his recent visit to UN Headquarters.
1 August 2017 – Women continue to be disproportionately affected by drug use, and face obstacles in accessing treatment, compared to men, according to the President of the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).
Viroj Sumyai, who presented the Board’s Annual Report on 6 July to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), urged Member States to integrate gender perspectives in the elaboration of their drug policies to address this discrepancy.
According to the report, drug-related harms to women and the resulting consequences for communities are often “sorely under-studied,” and gender-disaggregated data on drug use are rarely collected.
“There are also inadequate budget allocations by Member States for the specific prevention and treatment of drug dependence and substance use disorders among women, who often do not have access to any assistance and suffer in silence,” the report pointed out.
In this context and to learn more about the work of the INCB, as well as the challenges before the international drug control regime, UN Newsspoke to Mr. Sumyai, a national of Thailand, during his recent visit to UN Headquarters.
Parts of the interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.
UN News: Can you tell us about the work of the INCB?
Viroj Sumyai: The board is composed of 13 members, elected in their personal capacity, by the Economic and Social Council. We are based in Vienna, Austria. Our primary responsibility is to monitor the compliance by the States parties to the three international drug control conventions: the 1961 Convention; the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances; and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances.
UN News: Women and drugs was a key subject in the Board’s latest annual report. What were the major concerns that you identified and how can they be addressed?
Viroj Sumyai: The biggest problem we see is the disproportionate impact on women in being able to access treatment facilities for substance use disorder. According to the data, only one in five women addicted to drugs are going to treatment facilities.
There are no specialized facilities for women to seek treatment. This creates a major obstacle both for them as well as their families, especially children that depend on women for care.
Looking at it from a sustainable development perspective, when governments are looking at issues such as livelihoods for their populations, they need to look at this issue too. It is also the right of women to seek treatment for substance use disorder.
And this is my main goal as the President of the INCB: I want to tackle the problem of lack of access to treatment for women who are addicted to drugs.
UN News: What are your thoughts on the abuse of opioid medications?
Viroj Sumyai: Over prescription of opioid medication, happening primarily in high-income countries like the US, Canada, countries in Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, is creating a lot of problems. However, at the same time, there is the lack of access to these medications in low- and middle-income countries which in itself is causing a lot of issues. This is a major concern.
UN News: What are the biggest challenges for the international drug control system and how can they be overcome?
Viroj Sumyai: The biggest challenge, in my view, is for the people in the middle- and low-income countries who suffer from the lack of access to controlled medications due to misconceptions on the part of the State party, who feels that very strict controls over narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances is good and that it stops diversion of these drugs into illicit markets.
This is resulting in medical practitioners and health officials becoming reluctant to prescribe such medications – like morphine – to people who are in need and are suffering from deadly diseases and require the medicines to alleviate their pain. Similarly, persons with psychological illness are also suffering because they cannot avail psychotropic medicines they need.
There’s still so much ignorance about the disease model of addiction. It’s passed genetically through families, causes definable changes in brain structure, function & chemistry; clearly ADDICTION IS A DISEASE. We cannot treat disease with punishment. This reminds me of Iceland’s attitude toward Downs Syndrome; abort the fetuses that carry it to remove them from the gene pool–kill the patient to cure the disease! Horrible! Women are not necessarily at increased risk of addiction, but are certainly at increased risk of death from this disease due to being unable to get the proper care that any addicted person needs!