Despite the up-coming United Nations Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) and international discussions around the opportunity to bring about much needed changes to drug policy, there has been little discussion around drug policy in South Africa. In order to try and encourage debate around these issues TB/HIV Care Association, with funding from Open Society Foundations, organised the RUN2016 SA Drug Policy Week. The slogan for the conference was “we need to talk about drugs” and it took place from the 1st to the 4th of February 2016.

What was unique about the conference was that it brought together local and international experts on drug policy, as well as key stakeholders in the South African drug policy landscape, including representatives from the National Department of Social Development, the Department of Health, The South African Police Services, the Central Drug Authority and a recent former chair of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). UNAIDS officially launched the conference by introducing their UNGASS position (A Public Health and Rights Approach to Drugs) which is possibly one of the most progressive reports on how to address drug use by any UN agency. Professor Julian Buchanan, an outspoken critic of the War on Drugs with a long history in the harm reduction field as well as an exemplary academic career, set the scene for the rest of the conference.

RUN2016 SA Drug Policy Week, 1st to the 4th of February 2016.

What was particularly refreshing was that people did indeed engage and “talk about drugs”. The dialogue was open, honest and frank. One commentator listed their highlight as “people’s honesty” while another commented that “having so many people from different avenues in one place” was the highlight for them. A common theme was the request for even more time to discuss and debate the issues and presentations.

The conference also saw the release of the first of a series of four reports that will result from a human rights violations surveillance project. The project is funded by Open Society Foundations, AmfAR and Mainline with the objective of formally quantifying and recording human rights violations against drug users, particularly injecting drug users accessing harm reduction services from TB/HIV Care Association’s StepUp Project. This data will be used for advocacy. The release of the report was covered by many websites, newspapers and radio stations and gave the opportunity for a broader public debate around the rights of all South Africans, including people who use drugs.

But perhaps the biggest achievement of the event was the shift in position by the Department of Social Development regarding the African Position submission for the UNGASS2016. Despite South Africa chairing the technical committee at the Africa Union Commission that went to great lengths over many months to draft a Common African Position, South Africa eventually submitted a very different position on behalf of the African member states. This was reported on, and although the official South African position had already shifted to some degree, by the end of the conference the Special Advisor to the Minister of Social Development categorically stated that the Common African Position was now South Africa’s official position, and South Africa would encourage all African states to promote the more progressive Common African Position.

Aside from the main conference, the event also hosted the South African leg of the Civil Society Task Force consultations ahead of the Civil Society UNGASS submission, as well as a regional consultation around the formation of a Southern African drug policy network.

It is planned that the event will again take place in 2017, ahead of the development of South Africa’s National Drug Master Plan 2018-2023. The organisers were particularly grateful for the guidance and input as well as active participation from the IDPC.

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