by Andrea Domínguez*

Even though the UN held its prohibitionist drug policy, a dissident group gathering 26 countries, led by Germany stated will adopt a “Harm Reduction” strategy, which was excluded from the Political Declaration, showing a deep division within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs’ meeting, where 52 governments met to evaluate the international drug policy in practice for the last 10 years, highlighted a deep polarization among the member nations, stressing that consensus will no longer be such an easy task as it was in the past.

The center of the controversy was the expression “harm reduction”, which in the end was excluded from the Political Declaration, in spite of the intense lobbying undertaken by government officials and European and Latin-American organizations.

However, a note, signed by 26 countries among which are Germany, Australia, Bolivia, Spain, Bulgaria and Switzerland, annexed to the Political Declaration, indicates these countries shall interpret “related support services” – an expression present in the Declaration – as “harm reduction”, which brought about strong criticism by Colombia, Cuba, Russia and the United States.

This was a way not to block the Political Declaration and, still, keep a public health issue regarding the drug issue. In some countries, this means medical treatment for drug users, needle exchange in order to curb the HIV/AIDS epidemic among drug addicts and the substitution of opiates by controlled medicine, among other actions.

In his speech, Ambassador Rüdiger Lüdeking, head of the German delegation, which led the “dissidence”, explained that “harm reduction” will complement prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, as part of a broad strategy to reduce the demand for drugs, aiming at facing the drug abuse consequences.

According to Martin Jelsma, who was present at the debates, and is the coordinator of the “Drug and Democracy” program at the Transnational Institute, the note sets an important disagreement precedent in an organ used to reaching consensus without a strong resistance. “This group’s statement of disagreement, and the reaction it created on the other groups generated a very tense moment, demonstrating there are countries that will not ‘go with the flow’, or silence in order to achieve consensus, but will debate (…) this had never happened before”.

The director of Open Society’s Global Drug Policy Fund, Kasia Malinowska, added that “Viena’s consensus seems to be incredibly important to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime… Well, clearly this era is coming to an end”.

Rubem Cesar Fernandes, director of Viva Rio in Brazil and member of the Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, was also at the meetings and stated that the Political Declaration was as a “swan song, a melancholic sign of the end of a story. The changes are already happening - albeit scattered - around the world, beyond the Viennese salons. This is true even in the United States, the appointment of th new Drug Czar, native of Seattle, a city famous for its positions Liberals, points in this direction. ”

“More of the Same”

Beside this aspect, the Political Declaration does not mean a major change regarding the international drug policy, which has been mainstream for the last ten years, has come. On the contrary, with it, the UN strengthened its prohibitionist posture, upholding its dream of a “world free of drugs”. The declaration has, in fact, set a date to reach this dream: by 2019, the nations must have “eliminated or significantly reduced” the illegal poppy, coca and cannabis crops.

All this in spite of the arguments presented by entities such as the European Commission, who during the debates presented a report questioning the current drug policy, indicating, among other things, that drugs have become between 10% and 30% cheaper.

According to this report, prohibition has only generated the relocation of drug traffickers toward places with little or no state presence, as well as the sharing of needles among addicts. “The global drug situation seems more or less the same it was in 1998… There is little evidence that drug control can reduce the global drug production… The controls on production and trade only redistribute activities. Repression against local markets has failed in most countries”, the document affirms.

In this regard, Lüdeking added during his statement that the world should admit that the goals and objectives set ten years ago were not met. “Illegal drug and psychotropic substances consumption has not been substantially reduced. In many places around the world, it has, in fact, increased considerably. The same goes to illegal drug production and supply, which haven’t been reduced, despite all our efforts” and he concluded that, therefore “more of the same is not enough”.

Also, the applause received by the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, after his instructional speech on the medicinal nature of coca leaves, was not reflected in the Political Declaration. “This is a coca leave. This is not cocaine. It’s part of our culture. It is not a narcotic drug and it’s not possible that it should be included in a narcotic drugs list”, he said, after which he chewed the leaves. The formal petition to exclude the coca leaves from the narcotic drugs list will follow the normal course inside the UN.

Even the Executive Director fro, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa acknowledged the current policy’s failure regarding organized crime and their impact on societies. Costa said that consumption had been reduced, but accepted that cartels were using their huge profits to undermine democracy in many countries. However, Costa credited this not on the policy itself, but on many countries’ inability to enforce the UN Conventions on drugs.

The Background

So, why did the CND insist on its prohibitionist policy? According to a diplomat involved in the negotiations, who asked not to have his name made public, to many countries the drug policy is a tool for social control. “Inside the CND there are three groups: one wants to keep the struggle against drugs framework as it is, since the drug policy allows those countries to better execute social control on specific groups deemed to be “problematic”, such as youth or unemployed, unsatisfied and ‘outsider’ populations in general. In those cases, the drug policy is a policy undertaken by governments to put minorities, such as Blacks and Hispanics, among others, in line”

The second group – said the diplomat – is made up by some European countries that wish to face drugs as a matter of public health, understanding the currently illicit drugs as harmful as alcohol or tobacco, and to offer drug users medical assistance, rather than judicial punishment. “The third group is made up by Latin-American countries, with some exceptions like Colombia, that want to adopt health policies to deal with the drugs issue, like in the case of Brazil, but haven’t got much visibility in the CND”, the diplomat explained.

According to Malinowska, the reason why the CND continues defending its policy is that “some countries with voice will not admit that a world free of drugs is a fantasy, and also because these same governments are willing to ignore scientific knowledge and follow a moralist and ideological interpretation in stead of learning with past experiences”.

When commenting the Declarations scope, Human Rights Watch’s director, Joseph Amon, said in a note that, “due to vast violation of Human Rights around the world as a direct result of drugs illegality , human rights must be in the core of UN’s drug policy (…) But this political declaration makes little mention to the member-states’ legal obligation regarding human rights, and it does not insist on respecting human rights on the drug policy”.

Certainly, the NGO’s consensus on this matter is that the Political Declaration was a deception; however, there are important aspects, such as the statement supported by the 26 “dissident” countries and the much larger participation of civil society, through the NGO’s stronger participation.

“Previous meetings can’t be matched by the degree of participation by NGOs, which now have a leading role on issues such as human rights and AIDS, for instance. They were present in many unofficial meetings that had a great impact. However, their direct participation activities in the UN are still too shy, for, during the meetings regular sessions, which lasted two days, only five minutes were dispensed for one delegate, in the name of all the NGOs”, said Jelsma.

The reduced space for NGOs in the sessions was in stark contrast to their staff’s movement in corridors and parallel events. So agreed Malinowska, who acknowledged that the NGOs work was visible and it represented civil society, a component that was neglected in previous meetings and seems to have obtained a permanent seat at the CND.


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