It was nearly standing room only Monday at UN Headquarters in New York, for a presentation of the Organization of American States’ reports on “The Drug Problem in the Americas” and the Declaration of Antigua Guatemala, “For a Comprehensive Policy against the World Drug Problem in the Americas,” adopted during the 43rd Regular Session of the Organization of American States General Assembly in La Antigua, Guatemala from 4 to 6 June 2013. The event was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Guatemala to the United Nations, in collaboration with IDPC, Harm Reduction Coalition and the New York City Bar Association Committee on Drugs & the Law.

The Keynote speaker was Fernando Carrera Castro, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Guatemala, who was followed by Lisa Sánchez, Drug Policy Coordinator, México Unido Contra La Delincuencia and Transform Drug Policy Foundation, and Rebecca Schleifer, Advocacy Director, Health and Human Rights Division, Human Rights Watch. The event was moderated by Coletta Youngers, IDPC Associate and Senior Fellow at The Washington Office on Latin America.

Coletta Youngers opened the discussion with a brief background of the OAS meeting, where for the first time, OAS placed its main focus on drug policy issues.  Coletta discussed the OAS’s analytical report and scenarios exercise, and the Declaration of Antigua Guatemala, which among other things, calls for a Special Session of the General Assembly of the OAS in 2014, as a lead up to the drugs UNGASS to be held in New York in 2016.  Coletta pointed out that while many countries in the region are calling for alternative policies, there’s certainly no consensus on what those policies might be – rather we are at the beginning on a very long and interesting debate, and are focused on moving that debate forward.  Underscoring the important role of civil society organizations, she talked about the Antigua declaration setting forth a very comprehensive set of recommendations made by a diverse group of civil society members.

Minister Fernando Carrera Castro then gave his address. He discussed his history with drug policy reform starting with his days advising President Otto Pérez Molina, who, in the face of adversity and intense criticism, has for many years advocated for finding an alternative to the “War on Drugs”.

The Summit of the Americas in Antigua was a turning point in this regard.  Well-attended by many high level leaders, the consensus from the meeting was that, although drastic change in the short term was not likely, “adjustments” are needed, primarily with respect to: changing the focus to health and human rights, decriminalization, prevention of violence, and discussing the socioeconomic aspects of the problem and developing social policy in response.  It was recognized at the meeting that a shift from a multi-disciplinary approach was needed instead of continuing to focus on interdiction.  In the end, it was acknowledged that these “common sense” policies must be a topic of public debate so that a new strategy could be developed over the next 3-4 years in the lead-up to 2016. In the end, Minister Carrera stated that “we’re just starting these discussions – we don’t know where we’ll be in 10 years time, but we’re starting a change in approach,” and acknowledged that the 21st century “deserves a more scientific approach to drugs, not just a continuation with a repetition of what we’ve done in the last 50 to 60 years.”

Lisa Sánchez followed with a discussion of the actual process of drafting the OAS reports and the methodology:  the report composed of two components including 1) the analytical report, which addressed different dimensions of drug problem in Americas (where are we?), and 2) the scenarios report, showing four narratives of what drug policies could look like from 2013 to 2025 (where could we be?). The scenarios report, the more forward looking of the two, shows four narratives, or “stories”, each with its own focus, such as security, legal alternatives, health and strengthening of communities, and conflict and disruption of adopting different policies in different countries. She pointed out that it was important to note that these are not meant to be a set of recommendations, but a useful baseline document to foster debate and promote national, local and regional dialogues on drug policy in order to better understand what the real possibilities of change are and how can we as governments and civil society actors can respond to support drug policy reform. 

Lisa then explained the four scenarios briefly:  1) “together”, with an emphasis on security policy; 2) “pathways”, with a focus on legal regulation; 3) “resilience”, with a focus on strengthening of communities; and 4) “disruption”, which has as its solution the deprioritizing of enforcement in transit countries.  All of the scenarios introduce some degree of change, although none of them are mutually exclusive; rather, it is up to governments to take the four of them and try to understand how drug policy can evolve and get a clear idea of what a post-prohibition world could look like if one or another decision was made.  Ultimately, the scenarios report provides a good baseline tool moving forward to address the drug problem both hemispherically and within the UN in 2016. 

After Lisa’s presentation, Coletta pointed out the widely divergent needs and goals among nations especially within Latin America, and that there was therefore the need for corresponding flexibility.

Finally, Rebecca Schleifer gave an impassioned presentation on the topic of human rights and drug policy, acknowledging the great strides made in the area– indeed at the session of the Commission of Narcotic Drugs in 2009, the very mention of the words “harm reduction” raised alarm bells.

Rebecca discussed Human Rights Watch’s position of opposing criminalization of possession for personal use. HRW has been documenting human rights abuses relating to drug control efforts for more than 15 years and has found that in countries throughout the world, criminal law relating to drug use and related law enforcement practices facilitate or exacerbate serious human rights abuses, ranging from torture, ill treatment and extrajudicial killing to denial of basic health services.  Despite the fact that individuals have the human right to seek life saving health services without fear of punishment or discrimination, the research in many countries shows that many people do not carry sterile equipment and do not take advantage of health services geared towards drug users because of fear of being branded a drug user. 

Rebecca pointed out that while the trend seems to be on the emphasis of drug treatment, not incarceration – couching drug users as patients, not criminals – seems at first to be progressive, there are serious problems with this approach.  First, the vast number of people who use drugs do not need treatment. Second, treatment is extremely limited and many facilities don’t meet human rights standards.

In two instances of “calling out the elephant in the room,” Rebecca discussed human rights abuses in Guatemala involving 6,000 people held in up to 200 “evangelical prayer camps” ostensibly for the purposes of treatment. Drug users are taken off the street, by field hunting parties (grupos de cazadores), by the police, family members or voluntarily.  They face difficult conditions inside these facilities, including harsh penalties if they want to leave and little government oversight. In the second instance, she discussed the primary donors to the drug control system– the United States, for example (who were, actually, in the room) – and pointed out that with major donor status comes a responsibility to see that human rights are not violated in the process.

Rebecca also discussed progresses made, domestically and internationally, in drug reform –for example, decriminalization of possession for personal use, protecting access to harm reduction services, supervised injection sites; and prison-based needle exchange.

In closing, she discussed reform under the international drug conventions – the Declaration of Antigua noted the importance of “fully implementing” the Conventions, and Rebecca expressed hope that “fully implementing” would mean that governments use the flexibilities permitted in the drug conventions, which INCB recognizes, such as the decriminalization adopted in Portugal.  She emphasized, however, that HRW’s position is that states need to seek amendment of the Conventions insofar as they conflict with human rights obligations – including efforts to permit decriminalization of possession for personal use. 

The session ended with a brief question and answer session, which touched on the connection of the OAS reports and Declaration with the process leading up to the High Level Review scheduled for the 57th Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in 2014 and the UNGASS to be held in New York in 2016.

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