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Dispatch from Vienna, Day Two: A Spy in the House

Graham Boyd,
Drug Law Reform Project
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July 9, 2008

Intrigue and then remarkable progress marked the second day of the Vienna conference on drug policy.

First, the intrigue. Throughout the first day, I kept noticing this one person who harrumphed, guffawed, and muttered every time someone spoke in ways critical of the drug policy status quo. By accent, she seemed to be from the United States. And she had a yellow badge, where everyone else had a red badge. Who was she? Why did she keep shuffling over to the U.S. groups like Drug Free America and other cheerleaders for U.S. hardline policy? She settled in right behind me, and gave instructions to her allies — tactics for blocking inclusion of harm reduction. She said "one of you needs to interject to stop the hand clapping in favor of their proposals." More and more, she seemed like some sort of puppet master. As the day concluded, she rushed up to the podium, accosted the chair, and, in the most agitated way, began lambasting the chair for various procedural points.

I had to find out about the American woman with the yellow badge. At a social gathering later that evening, I described my observations to some of the NGO delegates who regularly attend these U.N. events. Turns out that the yellow-badge woman is June Sivilli, an employee of the U.S. drug czar's office and a regular fixture at Vienna drug meetings. Until now, she has been able to speak as an official voice of the U.S. government — and the U.S. is always the most important voice on U.N. drug policy issues. Now that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are bringing the voices of ordinary people to the table for the first time ever, she was actively subverting the process, throwing every possible obstacle in the way of this quite benign process.

I'd always heard that the U.S. government played a bully role in international drug policy. But it's really ugly to see it in practice.

Happily, the second morning of the conference came with no U.S. government saboteurs on the scene. Someone must have let Sivilli know that her contributions were not appropriate. As if by magic, the barrage of objections from yesterday largely evaporated. Some of the pro-status quo groups continued to raise some objections, but I realized that some of those folks have a genuine desire to make the world a better place and a desire to make the NGO consultation productive. The head of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America offered some reasonable compromises; the representative of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) supported my calls for human rights protections; even Calvina Fay (see yesterday's post on her deplorable statements) became fairly agreeable.

I shouldn't overstate the kumbaya spirit of the day, though. A tempest erupted when a European HIV prevention group suggested that drug users should be consulted in making drug policy because they are the most affected. He asked us to imagine if an AIDS convention were drafted without mentioning people living with HIV. The NADCP representative then brought down the house with this: "I do not believe that people who are using drugs should be part of the process," followed by, "drugs are illegal, so it can't be compared to the civil rights movement" and a comment that people could be heard only if "they submitted themselves to treatment" first. Deborah Small from Break the Chains offered an olive branch, saying that we all share the goal of helping people, so we should exclude no one. But the point of the whole exercise was brought home by the chair of the meeting, who said that some governments hesitate to consult NGOs because they are seen as unruly or undirected, so this kind of squabble would bring delight, showing that NGOs are categorically unfit to have a seat at the table.

Thus, with Sivilli gone and with our minds focused on not looking like a room of unruly school children, we finally rolled up our sleeves. By mid-day, we began accelerating through a draft resolution, adding in human rights protections, recognizing the value of harm reduction, and insisting that "success" in the drug war must account for all the human and economic costs of incarceration and law enforcement, not just a tally sheet of tons of drugs interdicted. We even agreed that the U.N. drug bodies should re-evaluate whether incarceration is an effective drug policy. (One stalwart — a fellow whose organization's goal is to bring drug testing to every school in the U.S. and across the globe — objected that this was an attack on law enforcement. None of the law enforcement organizations agreed.)

Frankly, I'm not sure what to make of all this. It seems clear that ordinary people of the world are able to do a pretty good job describing a sane drug policy, so long as the U.S. drug czar stays out the way. The problem, though, is that this wonderful set of recommendations will matter only if national governments decide to listen. Once Sivilli resumes her customary seat at the table, she'll surely oppose the recommendations. But will the other nations of the world have the wherewithal to chart their own course? Given that U.S. aid is often made conditional on toeing the U.S. drug policy line, it's hard to be overly optimistic.

And yet, we have no choice but to find hope that other nations will join us in charting a new course. At the end of today, I talked with Deodory John. He runs program in Tanzania for young people harmed by drug use. The program, Rafiki Family, is funded by local contributions. He is certain that prisons and police would do the kids in his program no good; they need education, jobs, peer counseling and treatment. And using harm reduction interventions, he's working to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS. (If you want to join me in supporting his program, please send an email to John for more information.) I also met Tripti Tandon, from the Lawyers Collective's HIV/AIDS Unit in India. She told me how India had enacted draconian drug laws under pressure from the U.S. to comply with its treaty obligations. The law makes even consumption of drugs a crime, and police routinely pick up poor people, force them to take drug tests, and then convict them based on the results. A positive for marijuana lands you in jail for six months; harder drugs for a year. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the U.S. helped design and build a remote maximum security prison, where death-row inmates are transported using CIA rendition techniques (hoods, shackles, beating), confessions are extracted under torture, and the majority of prisoners are accused solely of drug crimes. This travesty is exposed on page 45 of a March 2008 U.N. Human Rights Council report to the U.N. General Assembly. If the NGOs get our way here in Vienna, the U.N. drug bodies will start documenting the myriad human rights violations committed under the U.S.-led global war on drugs.

At the ACLU, we work hard to replace the drug war with a humane, health-based approach. The millions of current, former, and would-be drug prisoners in the U.S. urgently need this change. This conference makes clear that things are as bad, and often worse, in other parts of the world, and I'm glad that our work may help atone for — maybe even correct — some of the devastation that U.S.-led drug policy has inflicted throughout all corners of the globe.

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