Last month, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) was invited to attend a high-level meeting on drug policies by the prestigious Ditchley Foundation. The Foundation is housed in a huge country house in England, and was established in 1958 to support international learning and knowledge exchange on a wide range of topics. This was the fourth meeting on drug policy that the Foundation has hosted since 1969.

The meeting brought together leading drug policy experts from around the world, including Gil Kerlikowske (Director of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy), Baroness Meacher (from the UK House of Lords), Daniela Spinant (Head of the EC Anti-Drugs Policy Unit), Antonio Maria Costa (former Executive Director of UNODC), and Michel Kazatchkine (the UN Special Envoy on AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia). There were also representatives from Afghanistan, Australia, Colombia, Germany, Guatemala, Norway, Poland, Portugal and the UK.

The meeting itself was held under “Chatham House rule” – meaning that statements cannot be publically attributed to individual participants. The Ditchley Foundation’s report from the meeting – entitled “How should drug control policy change?” has now been released, and reflects the overall sentiment at the meeting in line with the “Support Don’t Punish” campaign: “A shift towards policies more focussed on public health benefits, and less on law-enforcement, was generally seen as the direction to go… Law enforcement itself should concentrate even more than now on the major players in the illegal drugs trade, not the users”.

Inevitably, there were differences of opinion amongst this broad group of participants – with some keen to defend the status quo and hail the successes of current drug control, while others were keen to explore alternative approaches that could reduce or avoid some of the harms to individuals and communities. There was also much discussion about the flaws of promoting a “One size fits all” approach to drug control, the need for flexibilities in the international conventions, and the potential for regional policies that may differ from one another – reflecting the different challenges faced by different groups of countries.

Despite differences of opinion among the participants, the final report does draw out some generally agreed recommendations – which are inevitably far from revolutionary. These include avoiding unhelpful (and often plainly false) polarisation of the debate, being specific to different drugs and contexts rather than promoting one approach for all, focusing primarily on the reduction of harm. The recommendations also note that “The UN Conventions are outdated but not too much effort should be wasted trying to amend them. Allowing more national flexibility and experimentation under the rules would be a more productive approach at this stage”. As the report concludes, this is “an immensely complex area, where there are no easy solutions or magic bullets” – but this meeting was another example of a shift in dialogue toward drug policy reforms.

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