Top Reformers Share Hopes and Disappointments as UNGASS Looms

Apr 05 2016

Top Reformers Share Hopes and Disappointments as UNGASS Looms

April 5th, 2016

A high-powered group of reformers ushered in the month of UNGASS—the first special UN drugs summit since 1998—at the Open Society Foundations in New York this morning. They expressed hopes and disappointments about the progress and lack of it surrounding the event.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, noted the much-improved context of this summit versus the last one, 18 years ago, which adopted the clueless tagline: “A Drug-Free World—We can do it!”

“It was the sort of rhetoric,” Nadelmann said, “that made you wonder what the delegates themselves might have been smoking. The whole meeting was a bad trip, in a way.” That he sees this month’s version merely as “the seeds being planted,” during “a generational or even century-wide transition” towards a truly 21st-century drug policy model, speaks to how far there is left to go.

Where does the US fit in? Long the principal driver of the global War on Drugs, the US State Department is now, said Nadelmann, “trying to manage an awkward withdrawal,” which “should continue, if the next person in the White House is either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.”

He spoke of US politicians’ belated awakening to the disaster of mass incarceration and their softening to marijuana legalization—including an effective “green light” from the federal government for states to pursue their own pot policies, which makes it pretty hard for the US to object to legalization in, say, Uruguay. Yet, he added: “I really see the State Department as the ones dragging, here. You can see them being torn between the talking points of the past 40 years and [changing their language].”

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of OSF’s Global Drug Policy Program, agreed, saying that one of her big concerns is “the very palpable separation” between domestic US policy and international policy. As well as old-school enforcement, her colleague Daniel Wolfe, OSF’s director of International Harm Reduction Development, pointed out that “internationally the US is very aggressive in pushing drug courts as a third way.” Many reformers criticize the drug-court model for being abstinence-only, for being more punitive than it appears, and for allowing unqualified judges to make medical decisions.

However tangibly the US approach improves, many governments remain dead-set on maintaining the drug-war status quo, and their opposition is expected to stop their more progressive counterparts from achieving changes to international law later this month.

Ruth Dreifuss, a former president of Switzerland who is now a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, said that “there is a discourse coming from China, Japan, Russia and Arab countries [for example], speaking about the success they’ve had in the repression” of people who use drugs. Yet, she noted, “two of the most oppressive regimes, China and Iran, had to recognize that they had a large number of people using drugs, and to provide services,” including methadone programs.

Meanwhile Russia—which has notoriously resisted harm reduction measures, contributing to a public health crisis around injecting drug use—is dedicated enough to misinformation to have organized an UNGASS side-event, ostensibly based on science.

In Switzerland, Dreifuss helped to introduce an imaginative range of harm reduction and treatment measures, including heroin-assisted treatment, which positively addressed the country’s drug-related problems. Many other nations are less lucky.

Professor Michel Kazatchkine—a physician and Global Commission on Drug Policy member who served as director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria—detailed some of “the most negative consequences” the world faces as a result of its current drug policies. These include almost two million people living with HIV related to injecting drug use, vast numbers with hepatitis C, and—often overlooked—greatly increased incidence of tuberculosis: “The risk of acquiring [TB] when you are an active injector is at least six times that of the general population.”

Further consequences mentioned by Prof. Kazatchkine included the unavailability of palliative care and heightened overdose risks. Amid this gloomy assessment, he did note “a few positive signals, a few slight shifts in language” and the promising possibility of a stronger role for the World Health Organization in crafting responses to drug problems.

Aram Barra, program officer at Mexico United Against Crime, has worked on a project to count the costs of prohibition, which include 100,000 drug-war dead in Mexico and many more across Latin America. With countries like Colombia and Mexico, he noted, pushing hard to regulate medical marijuana, while Uruguay has already legalized, a lot of Latin American leaders “will come to UNGASS and say it’s very clear that the current model is not working. What the rest of the world does with that…”

The situation in Latin America is one big example of how the global War on Drugs affects different populations unequally. “The global drug policy regime is a great amplifier of social injustice,” said Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch. She named Latin America’s coca farmers and incarcerated women, opium-growers in Afghanistan, and death-row inmates who broke drug laws in Malaysia among many other marginalized groups “who will not be helped by UNGASS.”

In the absence of treaty change, more flexible interpretations of current laws may help to facilitate progressive policies that benefit public health. That possibility exists, said Malinowska-Sempruch, “but it really exists for rich countries—you have to ‘lawyer up’ and argue your case.” Her “biggest disappointment” is that “we’re not taking on the overall structure.”

Still, she cited the “louder” voices of some previously marginalized governments, together with the fact that “the monopoly” of the enforcement-focused UN Office on Drugs and Crime over drug policy “is now being questioned,” amid recognition that development issues, women’s issues and health issues, for example, are all involved, as grounds for some optimism.

While the “inside game” of what takes place within the UN building in New York is likely to be frustrating despite positive signs, the “outside game”—a variety of gatherings and events taking place in the city in April to highlight the need for change—should be lively. You’ll be able to read about it on The Influence.