On 17th June, I attended the final annual meeting of the Partnership Cooperation Programme between the European Union and Latin America (COPOLAD) – a four-year project funded by the European Commission, aiming to consolidate the mechanism between the EU and CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), exchange evidence and best practice on demand and supply reduction, and strengthen national drug observatories. IDPC, as an associate body, has been involved in this mechanism since 2012. Other members include government officials, and multilateral organisations such as the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and others. 

This specific meeting was focused on exchanging information and best practice around health-based drug policies. It was refreshing to hear so many government officials both from Latin America and Europe discussing the need for evidence-based drug treatment, but also for access to harm reduction services and for the decriminalisation of drug use. Last year, opinions were already shifting away from tough prohibition when participants attending the third COPOLAD annual conference discussed the over-incarceration of women for minor trafficking offences throughout Latin America. Then, government officials could not help but acknowledge the failure of the war on drugs and the need to review drug policies so that those most vulnerable and marginalised should not bear the costs of a failed approach.

This June, government and regional representatives used the COPOLAD platform to promote examples of best practice from Europe and Latin America on how to best protect health in the framework of drug laws and policies. Luis Alfonzo Bello, from PAHO, made a particularly strong call in his pre-recorded presentation on the need to review the focus of our policies to include a wide range of health and social interventions for people who use drugs, with the active involvement of civil society. Subsequent panel discussions were marked by presentations from Chile, Spain, Colombia and Brazil, all calling for evidence-based approaches to reduce harms. Portugal was also given the chance to present its decriminalisation policy and the beneficial effects in terms of improved health and social outcomes in the country since 2001. As for Uruguay, the new cannabis regulatory regime was not mentioned here, but the Drug Coordinator rather focused on the health-based approach it has adopted for the past decades to ensure that people who use drugs have access to the health services that they need, without fear of stigma or arrest – drug use has never been criminalised in the country.

As a representative of IDPC, the only NGO representative alongside RIOD (Red Iberoamericana de ONG que Trabajan en Drogodependencias) involved in COPOLAD, I was given the opportunity to present IDPC’s project on “Modernising drug law enforcement”. The objective of my presentation was to explain how policing and drug law enforcement efforts can support, rather than undermine, programmes aimed at improving the health of people who use drugs. I gave a range of concrete examples, such as the London police support for NSPs in the 1980s-1990s, or the role of the police in Geneva or Vancouver in encouraging people to use their drugs in the city’s safe injection facility to reduce overdose deaths and risks of HIV and hep C infections. Overall, this new focus for police and law enforcement officers was well received by the participants, although these examples will clearly need to be adapted to fit in the Latin American context.

The meeting ended with some key information about what to expect out of Phase 2 of COPOLAD, which is planned to start in early 2015. Teresa Salvador-Llivina, the coordinator of COPOLAD – who has been fantastic in moving this ambitious project forward over the past four years – made two welcome announcements. Firstly, the regional scope of the project will be expanded to include countries from the Caribbean. This will be an interesting addition to the project and a way to promote more information sharing with the region. And second, there was a welcome acknowledgement that civil society should be better involved in the second phase of the project. IDPC will continue to engage in this interesting mechanism and, alongside RIOD, will continue to promote the voice of civil society in the debate.

Marie Nougier, IDPC Senior Research and Communications Officer