My friend, George Ochieng Odalo, serves as director of the Slum Child Foundation, a nonprofit organization assisting children living on the streets and in the most unstable households of Nairobi, Kenya. Today, on his first visit to the United States, he will address the United Nations in New York City about how legal drugs harm poor countries. Mr. Odalo says even Colorado’s vote to sanction marijuana use and toleration of the drug’s aggressive marketing and commercialization have had negative impacts on the children he serves. These are his full, prepared remarks:
Speech for UNGASS 2016 Stakeholder Consultation 10 February 2016, Trustee Council Chamber, United Nations Head Quarters, New York
Dear Chairman and Consultation Participants:
I am George Ochieng Odalo from Slum Child Foundation in Kenya. It is my first time in New York City and in the United Nations building here. Thank you for allowing me to speak.
Our NGO has many years of experience assessing and assisting some of the world’s poorest children. We want everyone to hear our thoughts about drug policy, drug interventions and human rights.
I, too, have been a street boy from the slums of Korogocho, Kenya — so I know very well the children and families on whose behalf I speak. These are people who have no voice — and profoundly inadequate consideration in world affairs. They are often hopeless. They lack food — so education, healthcare and jobs are even second thoughts. And because they live so desperately on the edge of every edge there is to live on, they are obviously vulnerable to so many of the problems listed in the Convention of the Rights of the Child as “special protection issues.”
Which brings me immediately to the issue of drugs. We know this to be true: drug use during childhood and adolescence is especially dangerous. Let there be no debate that youth are especially vulnerable to developing substance addiction and that substance abuse during adolescence is strongly associated with a wide range of poor outcomes. Poor health. Poverty. School dropout. Joblessness. And possibly — make that likely — criminality in the neighborhoods where I work.
Let there also be no debate that adults who profit from drug sales are profiting from youth. We all know it. Look no further than the American state of Colorado for evidence of the marketing and advertising aimed at children. Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster was even painted on a marijuana dispensary wall there. Once unleashed, this marketing and advertising will never be regulated, and we all know it. We have ignored and excused these devious tactics employed by the alcohol and tobacco industries far too long. Our world — and especially my small corner of it — cannot afford more of this glorification of mind-altering substances.
Unfortunately, it needs to be said — and repeated at every U.N. meeting: the world’s poorest communities are the most vulnerable to the harms of drug use and trade. Legalizing drugs in the United States and other wealthy countries does not help poor countries like mine. It harms us. Drug use undermines our frail societal structures. It ravages our households and villages. Cities like Nairobi simply do not have the resources to provide the services needed to address the problems we have already. We certainly will not be able to combat the even heavier burdens that would come from more drug legalization and the relentless marketing and media aimed at us by far wealthier countries. I know this because I already can see how the world’s richest countries fail to find the resources to address their drug problems, to care for their children and to help their poor. They like to talk about the taxes they make from drug sales without acknowledging these naked truths — and without considering populations so poor there are no taxes to collect.
As was the case with the consequences of AIDS and children orphaned because of the disease, substance abuse and addiction must be combatted by countries working together. I do not see this happening with current drug policy. Unfortunately, I see people who want to use and profit from recreational drug use without regard for how that will harm countries like mine. I see people demanding legal reforms without also acknowledging that drug legalization is not required to achieve them. I see people pushing for drug policies that are not rooted in responsible science reported by the world’s most respected scientists and medical associations. They are warning us, and too many of us in this room ignore them because we have agendas we are not being entirely honest about.
Speaking of those agendas, it is clear the money pushing for more drug use and more drug legalization is flowing — just as it always does when people want to buy their power, fame, politics and even more fortune. It is up to this world body to put a stop to this corruption and this influence. We must remain vigilant. We must rise above those industry tactics. We must remain determined to reach for the aspirational goal of promoting and building a world in which children have the right to grow up in drug-free environments. At the very least, we must reject policies that teach them recreational drug use is normal, acceptable — and even desirable. We must certainly not become enablers in the same way people are worn down and manipulated by those with substance addiction. We must set firm limits. We must guard against statements crafted after meetings, such as the session on drugs and human rights the Human Rights Council in Geneva held in September. A report issued from that meeting lists nine items and starts with the “right to harm reduction” — which is defined as “illicit drug use shall not be discouraged.” Let me repeat that: “illicit drug use shall not be discouraged.”
What follows are items about the rights of prisoners, women and minorities. Only in the last paragraph are children mentioned — and even then, not all children, but only the children who are using drugs. And people who are not illicitly using drugs? They weren’t considered at all in that report.
What signals do statements such as this send? And are they in line with Commentary 14 from the Monitoring Body for the 1966 Covenant on Economic, Social, and Political Rights, which makes clear that states shall prevent and discourage illicit drug use? And can we honestly say that the Convention on the Rights of the Child — which makes clear that children’s rights shall be a primary consideration for all policy making — is respected in that report from the OHCHR when children rank scant mention and last on a list of considerations? I think not.
We are letting rich countries — and the corrupt leaders of poor ones — dominate these drug-policy debates for the least noble reasons. We know drugs are bad for children. We know that adults struggling with substance addiction overwhelmingly started their drug use when they were children. We know drug use weakens even the richest societies. So, again, thank you for allowing me to be on record here for the world’s poorest, most vulnerable children. Count me among those who are standing against the selfish desires and financial agendas that are often cloaked by words and phrases like “justice,” “medicine” and “harm reduction.”