In the heartbeat before global lockdown: Business as usual in Vienna drugs debate

Rights Reporter Foundation


In the heartbeat before global lockdown: Business as usual in Vienna drugs debate

6 April 2020

As the international community grappled with the first major outbreaks of COVID-19, and before the whole world turned upside down as a result of the pandemic’s escalation, the 63rd Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) went ahead as planned in the first week of March in Vienna.

It was a quieter event than usual, partly because some government delegations stayed away due to the risk of spreading coronavirus, and partly because the vote on the recommendations on cannabis from the WHO’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) did not go ahead as planned. Seemingly in anticipation of the contentious cannabis vote, only five resolutions had been tabled, which is about half the usual number.

At the time of the CND, only a few countries had gone into lockdown and the guidance from the UN Office in Vienna was that it was fine to travel but to adhere to cough etiquette and public health measures, such as avoiding shaking hands and regular hand washing. This gave confidence to the many civil society representatives to attend the CND in force as usual.

Side events: Compelling cases for reform and accountability

The relatively slow cadence of the main proceedings stood in sharp contrast to more than 100 side events, many organised by civil society, covering an increasingly diverse range of issues that continue to push the envelope in Vienna.

From a progressive perspective, the most heartening side event this year showcased the moves in Norway towards the decriminalisation of drug use and possession for personal use. Health Minister, Bent Høie, presented the findings of the government-mandated committee tasked with assessing how Norway could shift away from criminalising people who use drugs. The committee’s report ‘From punishment to support’ recommends that Norway remove criminal sanctions for drug use and possession for personal use and transfers the corresponding oversight from the justice to the health sector. While police referral to drug counselling is part of the proposed model, the committee has recommended that no sanctions be imposed on those who do not wish to accept the referral.

From the floor, Arild Knutsen, a prominent and tireless Norwegian drug user activist, expressed his joy at the proposal after decades of advocacy to challenge punitive drug laws. In response, Minister Høie made an unprecedented and brave admission noting that after twenty years of debate and disagreement, Arild was right and he had been wrong. A rare and genuinely touching moment in the often polarised setting of the CND – and in an overall worrying context of shrinking civil society space.

Another important side event organised during the week advanced the discussion on gender and drug policy. This issue has received increasing, and well overdue, attention in recent years, catalysed by the UNGASS Outcome Document, which gave greater consideration to women’s specific vulnerabilities and needs.

‘“Were you really raped or did you just not get paid?” Addressing stigma and violence against women who use drugs’ was organised under the auspices of the UNODC Regional Office for Southern Africa, with the participation of the South African Network of People who Use Drugs (SANPUD). The event launched a sobering report with the same name, which documents the pervasive violence, control and extortion faced by women in the community. Speakers highlighted the intersecting forms of oppression that target women who use drugs and compound their situations of vulnerability. But also experiences of sisterhood, empowerment and resistance that signal the way forward.

This event highlighted an important topic that deserves to receive much greater attention and demonstrates how the burden of punitive drug policies and brutal law enforcement practices falls on some of the most vulnerable in society. This issue also strongly came to light at another event commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the UN Bangkok Rules.

In coherence? Countries on the fringes hold on to the outdated Vienna silo

The negotiations of resolutions this year were not as contentious as in previous years. The European Union (EU) tabled two resolutions, one on improving scientific data collection efforts and a second on ensuring access to controlled medicines,with a focus on palliative care. Russia tabled a resolution on the involvement of youth in drug prevention efforts, the US on involving the private sector in drug control efforts and the usual resolution on alternative development was presented by Thailand and Peru.

The issue that sparked most debate this year, both in the negotiations on resolutions and in the plenary, was the push to formally recognise the work of the UN system coordination Task Team on the Implementation of the UN System Common Position on drug-related matters, set up by the UN Secretary-General. Specific wording on this was in the initial draft of the EU’s resolution on data but received pushback from some member states and in the end the final draft referred to ‘effective UN inter-agency coordination’ but not explicitly to the Task Team.

However, in the plenary, many countries expressed their support for the UN Task Team, recognising that the CND and the General Assembly have long sought to strengthen coordination across the UN on drug policy. In the closing session, thirty-four countries expressed their support for the work of the Task Team, with Switzerland requesting a standing agenda item for future CND meetings for updates on their work.

IDPC also made an intervention during the plenary to highlight the critical relevance of Task Team and the need for system-wide coherence to ensure greater human rights oversight in drug control, building on the 2016 UNGASS.

Improving data collection: Steps, not strides, in the right direction

Another event of note at this year’s CND was the adoption of the revised Annual Report Questionnaire (ARQ), the key data collection tool used by UNODC to collect information on the global drug market each year.

After more than two years of negotiations, the revised ARQ was surprisingly adopted in seconds at the Plenary without discussion. Although significantly improved compared to its predecessor, there remain many gaps in the new iteration of the ARQ.

Now the key challenge will be to push for a mechanism that will enable other UN agencies – especially those focusing on human rights and development – to submit additional data on drugs to complement the information submitted through the ARQ. An area of work where the Task Team could make a valuable contribution in the years to come.

Cannabis scheduling recommendations: Yet another delay

Many civil society advocates had hoped that the CND would vote on at least some of the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) recommendations to reschedule cannabis at this session after a delay of 12 months.

The ECDD’s long-overdue critical review of cannabis was undertaken after many years of advocacy that questioned where cannabis had been placed in the international scheduling system. This was the first-ever WHO review of cannabis in the long history of international drug control.

Unfortunately, following many intense behind-closed-doors discussions in the weeks leading up to the CND, a decision was reached to, once again, delay the vote until December 2020.

As became clear at the CND intersessionals last year, the complex interrelated set of recommendations to change the current scheduling of cannabis and cannabinoids under the 1961 and 1971 Conventions, has raised lots of valid questions and legitimate concerns among member states and civil society that merit further clarification and debate.

However, the key recommendation to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention, reserved for the substances deemed most dangerous, with little or no medical or therapeutic usefulness, is quite straightforward and cannot be questioned from a scientific point of view, and has been strongly welcomed by civil society.

Given the growing evidence and acceptance of cannabis’ important medical properties, the removal from this schedule is simply a recognition of the current state of evidence and practice, as amply documented in the ECDD critical review reports.

The fact that this straightforward recommendation has triggered so much controversy, demonstrates the highly politicised nature of the Vienna diplomatic arena.

For those championing evidence-based drug policy decisions at the CND, defending the role and mandate of the WHO’s ECDD in making science-based scheduling recommendations is of utmost importance.

Inconsistencies in the treaty system itself, and the contentious nature of the CND debate around cannabis, especially following Canada’s legal regulation initiative, may have been taken into consideration in some of the other ECDD recommendations – a question that we have raised before.

In particular, the recommendation to keep cannabis in Schedule I of the 1961 Convention, alongside heroin and cocaine – in spite of the technical reports which make it clear that cannabis is associated with lesser risks – appears to reflect a concern not to further inflame an already divisive debate.

More intersessional meetings will take place in the fall to further clarify these issues, hopefully resulting in a productive preparation for a vote at the reconvened CND session in early December. Postponing the vote again would show disrespect for the WHO’s treaty mandate and the important work of the ECDD.

New Director, new directions? CND welcomes UNODC’s incoming ED

Finally, it was the first CND for the incoming UNODC Executive Director, Ghada Waly, from Egypt, who in her opening statement focused more on supply-reduction priorities, mentioning law enforcement’s lives lost but concerningly not the serious public health and human rights crises resulting from punitive drug control measures.

In advance of the CND, IDPC had sent a welcome message to Ms Waly, including an advocacy note enumerating the key priorities for her from the network’s perspective and called strongly for her to promote health and human rights in drug policy.

As is now customary, the Executive Director holds an informal dialogue with civil society during the week and this year the event was highly anticipated. Sadly, Ms Waly was unwell and unable to meet with civil society at the informal dialogue this year. We very much look forward to having the opportunity to meet with her either later this year, travel restrictions permitting, or at the next CND.

In time of COVID-19, leave no one behind

In the context of the global pandemic of COVID-19, some governments have been releasing a substantial number of inmates from overcrowded prisons to reduce infection risk in these settings. These are urgent and welcome developments and the UN should continue to call on governments to consider these measures.

However, in parallel, many governments are ramping up draconian and stringent measures to criminalise transmission, as well as non-compliance with public health measures, which is deeply concerning.

What we know from drug policy is that the burden of repression and punishment is borne by the most marginalised, and that the use of criminal law is not appropriate nor effective in advancing public health goals.

We must now broaden our advocacy efforts, increase solidarity across social movements and ensure that governments do not justify eroding human rights commitments in the name of disease control.


Related Profiles

  • International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC)
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
  • World Health Organization (WHO)