Pubdate: Mon, 09 Mar 2015
Source: Edmonton Journal (CN AB)
Copyright: 2015 The Edmonton Journal
Author: Tom Blackwell
Page: A9


UN vote could list anesthetic as illicit narcotic

In a dispute that pits the war on drugs against global health needs -
and one UN agency against another - a pair of Canadian researchers is
spearheading a last-ditch bid to keep a widely used anesthetic from
being declared an illicit narcotic.

The Chinese-led proposal to put ketamine on the international schedule
of "psychotropic" substances - alongside the likes of LSD and
mescaline - stems from its use as a club drug said to deliver
hallucinogenic "cheap thrills."

But "scheduling" the medicine would also likely deprive most of the
developing world of an inexpensive anesthetic employed in countless
surgeries, say opponents ranging from the Red Cross to Human Rights
Watch and the World Health Organization.

The expert committee that advises the WHO on drug dependency has said
scheduling and the restrictions that come with it would lead to
essential operations being cancelled and a "public-health crisis" in
many countries.

Early research also suggests ketamine - which is illegal for
recreational use in Canada - has promise as a breakthrough treatment
for patients with intractable depression, an application that could be
undermined by narcotics controls, critics say.

The WHO is supposed to have a veto over such proposals, but the United
Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has ignored its fellow UN
agency's objections - and international law - by pushing ahead with a
vote on China's proposal next week, charges a University of Ottawa
professor behind the opposition effort.

"If the resolution passes, it will be a catastrophe for access to
ketamine and safe surgery in developing countries," Amir Attaran and
former student Jason Nickerson write in the latest edition of the
journal Lancet. "This attempt to restrict ketamine is a simultaneous
affront to global public health, human rights and the rule of law."

It was Nickerson who stumbled on the drive to control ketamine last
year, and who has since been key in building an international
opposition of non-governmental organizations and experts, said Attaran.

The respiratory therapist, who just obtained a doctorate in population
health, flew to Vienna Friday to lobby the 53-member Commission on
Narcotic Drugs that is set to decide the issue this week.

Canada has a vote on the commission but has yet to reveal its
position, saying only that it is aware of concerns of both sides.

"Our department is examining the issue =C2=85 taking into consideration t
implications for developing countries where ketamine is an essential
anesthetic," said Sean Upton, a Health Canada spokesman.

The 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances at the heart of the
controversy is a system designed to control drugs of abuse worldwide.
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