With the UN’s drug control policy setting bathed in opaque diplomatic light, civil society advocates are left looking for the subtleties of language and tone to spot any sign of change. The NGOs closest to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world’s drug problem in April aren’t expecting dramatic changes, but they do see things moving in the right direction. Russell Brown canvasses what may happen in New York.
In the words of the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it’s been. Debates at UNGASS 2016, the UN General Assembly’s third grand meeting to discuss and agree policy around drugs, will be inseparable from what happened at the first in 1990 and what took place in the decade that followed, which was characterised by both the UN’s strongest actions to control the supply of and demand for non-medical drugs and growing doubts about the wisdom of the strategy.
That decade was foreshadowed by the 1988 Vienna Convention on Trafficking, which broke new ground in asserting that criminalisation of drug use, and not just trafficking, was also a matter of treaty compliance. It set the stage for UNGASS 1990’s adoption of a Global Programme of Action and the branding of the years 1991–2000 as the United Nations Decade Against Drug Abuse.
The establishment of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) in 1991 was seen as the beginning of a new era in the fight against drugs. A three-day meeting of the General Assembly in 1993 was intended to foster an unheralded degree of international cooperation in the post-Iron Curtain years. It was to be a new era.
“We have the machinery; we need now to make it work better,” declared the British delegation in 1993.
“In particular, we need a more solid international front in support of the 1988 United Nations Convention. This is an instrument with teeth, and we need to make it bite.”
The confidence in this better engineered project to reduce both the supply and demand for drugs echoed throughout the second grand meeting, UNGASS 1998. “A drug-free world – we can do it!” was the meeting’s slogan – and the concluding line of a UN-funded TV ad featuring helicopters spraying herbicides, fields of burning drug crops, armed soldiers and a farmer processing coffee.
Fordham says that, for many countries, acknowledgement of harm reduction does not extend to all types of drug use. Stimulants and crack cocaine fall outside the harm-reduction comfort zone. “And then the real outer limits of harm reduction, what’s still a fight, is around safe injection rooms, drug consumption rooms. That is not accepted at the UN level. It’s seen as too controversial, too much to do with facilitating drug use. And then also heroin-assisted treatment – that’s heroin prescribing for people who are dependent on heroin and finding substitution treatment isn’t working. Those are the outer limits.”
The IDPC has published a list of five UNGASS ‘asks’, which largely concern good faith. But the final one – “commit to the harm reduction approach” – is specific without insisting on a form of words.
“When we say that, we say commit to it in its broadest sense,” says Fordham. “We have this debate with member states about how hard you push for the words ‘harm’ and ‘reduction’ to appear next to each other in a political document. That’s still a difficult fight to win.”
“There will be a fight over it, and it’s a fight worth having,” says Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst at Transform, a British charitable think tank that campaigns for the legalisation and regulation of drugs. “But as long as the principle is captured, I think the semantics may not be the biggest concern.
“The objectors will look increasingly childish and petulant given realities on the ground and in the UN system – harm reduction has a more accepted definition in the UN context, in terms of the UNODC, UNAIDS, World Health Organization (WHO) technical guidelines – so it’s not impossible they will finally cave in, especially if the US changes its position.”
One break from the past is already evident, however. At UNGASS 2016, civil society groups will be more visible and engaged than ever.
“The civil society engagement has been exponentially greater than last time – the reform movement has expanded enormously,” says Rolles.
Dunne says the NDP is “quite a significant shift from its predecessors”. And that shift is no more evident than in the policy’s ground-breaking recognition that the harms of illicit drugs may stem from the very laws against them. In launching the policy in September, Dunne said that “the laws we make need to be reasonable, and it is crucial that our enforcement response is proportionate”.
And yet, the policy also says that New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act will not be changed. It’s a political contortion, but one likely to be reflected at UNGASS. Fordham sees a groundswell around the proportionality of drug offence sentences.
“This will be a key debate in the UNGASS process, and for the first time, we’re seeing language coming from member state submissions about the need to address the proportionality of sentences that’s in the submission from the US. Many of the Latin American countries also have a massive incarceration issue.”
She says sentences for low-level drug offences in many countries exceed those for rape, aggravated assault and, in some countries, even murder.
“There’s an acknowledgement that we’ve gone down a route that is far too repressive, and that has created a number of their problems. And has that really made our communities safer? Probably not.”
New Zealand Drug Foundation Executive Director Ross Bell says New Zealand goes into UNGASS in a unique position in that its attempt to find a new way to deal with new drugs, the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA), has little support at international level. The government would be in an awkward position if a substance that made it through the PSA’s approval process was subsequently scheduled under the UN drug treaties, as mephedrone was last year at Britain’s behest.
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