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Dispatch from Vienna: First Day of the United Nations' Forum on International Drug Policy

Graham Boyd,
Drug Law Reform Project
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July 8, 2008

Today marks the beginning of the first-ever attempt to shape international drug policy, not from the perspective of national governments, but based on the views and experience of people who live and work in countries all around the globe.

More than 300 delegates (including me, as the ACLU representative) gathered this morning in a room in a vast U.N. complex in Vienna. More famous as the home of international efforts to control the spread of nuclear arms, the complex is also home to the main U.N. agencies charged with control of illicit drugs. We sat in the chairs usually occupied by the Committee on Narcotic Drugs, each of us with an earphone providing simultaneous translation. Dial 4 for English, 5 for French or 8 for Spanish. If you rely on any of the world’s other languages — from Albanian to Zulu — it seems that you’re out of luck.

If a few languages are dominant, though, it was quickly clear that only one national government held sway in this part of the U.N.: the United States. The introductory remarks from the leading figures in the U.N. drug policy structure all reflected a surprising level of allegiance to hard-line U.S. drug policy. Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (recently his title was changed from Drug Czar to something less, well, czar-ish), proclaimed that last week the world had finally reached “containment” (his word, not mine) of the drug problem. I’ll let others judge whether he is right to claim victory: compare his report with a report by the Transnational Institute not-so-subtly titled, “UNODC Rewrites History in New World Drug Report to Hide Failure.” (PDF)

Hasn’t our own U.S. drug czar periodically (and controversially) proclaimed a statistical victory in the war on drugs, even as the rest of us know otherwise? Indeed, Congress held oversight hearings in March (PDF), slamming the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) for sugar-coating statistics and exaggerating its accomplishments. Just last week, the New York Times published a poignant editorial entitled, “Not Winning the War on Drugs,” which also took ONDCP to the mat for obfuscating the truth about its failures.

As to any alternative to arrest and incarceration as the framework for drug policy, Costa is sending mixed signals. On the one hand, he quipped, “we must move beyond these debates between a drug-free world and a free drug world,” suggesting that any alternative to drug gulags would entail providing free drugs to all who seek them. On the other hand, Costa signaled a new and most welcome opening to applying human rights rules to drug policy (much more on that later). Again he executed a nice turn of phrase: “Although drugs kill, we should not kill because of drugs.” I was left wondering: is his vision of human rights limited to disallowing the death penalty, or is this an opening to talk about decades of incarceration, invasions of privacy, and the host of other human rights violations committed in the name of drug law enforcement?

The non-governmental representatives turned out not to share Mr. Costa’s view of the world. During the past year, NGOs (that’s U.N.-speak for “nongovernmental organizations”) met in nine regional conferences around the globe. Covering vast swaths of the map (from sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast to East Asia), each meeting gathered input from hundreds of organizations and produced a report detailing NGO input. The input from these reports coalesced into a draft declaration and resolution. During the next few days, the NGOs in attendance will engage in a consensus-building process to debate the final wording of the declaration and resolution. In turn, the declaration and resolution will be presented at the U.N. General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in March 2009, when the next 10-year global strategy for drug policy will be determined.

In all but one region of the world, the NGOs found an appalling over-reliance on arrest and incarceration — appalling both because it proves ineffective in addressing drug addiction and because it destroys so many lives at such great cost. In all but one region, the NGOs called for applying human rights norms to their nations’ drug policies. In all but one region, the NGOs described their work in reducing the harms of drugs by providing sterile syringes to drug users to stop the spread of AIDS.

The one region to part course on these fronts was the United States. A regional meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, gathered a chorus of organizations that are funded by or collaborate closely with the U.S. Drug Czar’s office, and, having gathered only the usual suspects, they produced a consensus view that federal drug laws were consistent with the U.N. drug treaties and that they were working just fine. Their main complaint was that some states violate international law by choosing not to arrest seriously ill patients who use marijuana — a policy they call “medical excuse marijuana.” (By the way, this argument about international law is being made by the County of San Diego in a lawsuit where the ACLU and our allies are defending California’s medical marijuana law, so far with great success.)

It’s hard to select a low point in the presentation of the Florida meeting, but I’ll go with this one: according Calvina Fay, director of the Drug Free America Foundation and a former advisor to the ONDCP, “the criminal justice system is a good referral system for treatment.” In other words, we should be proud that we arrest and incarcerate more people for drugs than any nation in the entire world or in all of history because this is a way of getting these folks into treatment. I can hardly think of a more expensive or less humane way to address an issue that the rest of the world (and much of America) recognizes to be a public health issue.

The day ended with Fay blocking consensus on the suggestion that the words “harm reduction” should be included in a list of services provided by NGOs. The list is long and reflects the wide range of responses to people who use or misuse drugs — peer outreach, treatment, early intervention, education, etc. But the inclusion of this taboo term, “harm reduction,” invokes those approaches that seek to save lives of people who cannot or will not stop using drugs. The term is used in literally dozens of U.N. documents, the approach is practiced by a sizeable portion of the service providers at this conference (I would guess half or so, from every part of world, including Iran, and yet its very mention is anathema to the dogma-police approach to drug policy.

I spend a fair amount of my workdays thinking about the direction of drug policy in the United States. The Calvina Fays of our country leave me worried that we’re on the way to locking up another generation of Americans and exporting our misguided policies to the rest of the globe. So far, the U.N. has been an accomplice in doing so. But today’s airing of the views of the world’s NGOs leaves me hopeful that we’re in the process of turning a page on that history, both at home and abroad.

To learn more about the ACLU’s analysis and recommendations to the U.N., check out our statement to the United Nations: “Adopting a Human Rights-Based Global Drug Policy.”

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