Along with several colleagues from IDPC and Release, I attended the conference of the ISSDP last month. Set in the rather beautiful, historic city of Canterbury (it was in fact right next to the cathedral), the theme for this year’s event was the exploration of the ways that empirical research studies influence drug policies. There were numerous interesting presentations, and it would be impossible to mention more than a fraction of them here.

Of most significance to IDPC, however, was the plenary session featuring critical discussion of the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Mike Trace, IDPC Chair, opened the session with a defence of the Report. He reminded the audience, that this publication was always intended as a political intervention, yet despite that, he stood by the general thrust of the data on which the report was based.

Eminent US academic Professor Peter Reuter then spoke critically of the Global Commission Report, outlining briefly the shortcomings of some of the data it contained. ‘Nonetheless,’ he went on, ‘I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him.’ He listed the high calibre public figures who made up the Commission, and suggested that the real importance of the Report was that such well-respected individuals had very publically aligned themselves with the failure of the present drug control system and the need for open discussion of reform. The Report had done its job, he said, by drawing the attention of mainstream media and politics to the drug policy question, and the Commission should now quietly retire. He added that the Commission might have been more radical in its recommendations, a point echoed by (the equally eminent) Robin Room.

As an observer with, as it were, one foot in each camp of the academic research/policy activist divide, I found many of the discussions stimulating, one or two soporific, and some positively useful.

However, my impression is that the conference was not entirely successful in fulfilling its brief. On the ISSDP’s web site, the organisation’s stated objectives include ‘to improve the interface between researchers and policy makers’. If we broaden this a little to include not just policy-makers but the policy community (NGOs, civil servants, etc), there were times when academic researchers and the wider policy community appeared to exist in parallel universes. To a large extent, this is due to the differing institutional frameworks and cultures involved, which do not always share the same languages or possess equivalent types of formal social status. It is to be hoped that the conference will continue as an interface, and attempt to more effectively bridge this divide, with both sides viewing the conference as a learning process.

The attempt made by the ISSDP to be more geographically inclusive and broaden out the discussion to include a few presentations from Latin America and South East Asia should be noted.  There is still further work to be done to stimulate academic discussion and research on drug policy in countries other than those in Western Europe, North America and Australasia. The next conference will take place in Bogota, Colombia and will be the first time the conference has been held outside Europe or the US.

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