How the UN sets back harm reduction in Hungary

November 27, 2009
Hungary is to adopt a progressive national drug strategy in December 2009, but the opposition is using the UN Political Declaration to prevent its adoption

The “National Drug Strategy to Tackle Drug Problems 2010-18” was submitted to the Hungarian parliament by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour. Tamás Heintz, an MP from the largest opposition party, Fidesz, attacked the document saying that the Socialist government, with its fading popular support, has no legitimacy to adopt a long term strategy at the end of its 4-year term. According to Mr. Heintz, the new strategy is a threat to communities and leads to the atomization of society, because it promotes a harm reduction approach to drug use that is not supported by the UN.

The preamble to the 46 page National Drug Strategy outlines the multidisciplinary and balanced approach taken by the document, which considers the complexity of drug problems and puts equal emphasis on demand and supply reduction. The main goal of the strategy is to reduce the social and individual risks related to drug use and to build capacities to improve the effectiveness of interventions and increase access to services. The document endorses human rights, access to health, evidence, partnership, comprehensiveness and accountability as its main principles. It has three pillars: the first is prevention; the second is treatment and harm reduction; and the third is supply reduction. In addition, it complements these pillars with three horizontal angles (partnership, coordination, monitoring) and three criteria (vulnerability, severity, sustainability), which will help decision makers to determine the sequence of priority among various drug policy interventions.


The draft strategy was developed by the National Drug Prevention Institute, a governmental background institution established by the previous drug strategy of 2000. The government launched a public consultation to engage in a dialogue with civil society and people who use drugs about the new drug strategy. It also asked advise from respected international scholars, such as Maurice Galla from the European Commission and Ambros Uchtenhagen from the University of Zurich. The HCLU published a position paper on the first draft of strategy, thus contributing to shape the final text. The paper promotes a drug strategy based on human rights, social solidarity and public health. The final text was redrafted and now adequately reflects the concerns outlined in the HCLU’s proposals. For instance, a strategic aim to monitor drug related Internet sites by the police was revised because we warned the government that it may be used by law enforcement agencies as a license to do Internet censorship.


Long term goals of the draft strategy include the mainstreaming of harm reduction services such as opiate substitution treatment and needle exchange programs, complex interventions to prevent overdoses, the introduction of harm reduction programs to correctional institutions and the meaningful involvement of the most affected communities. The strategy also claims that law enforcement should not focus on the criminalization of drug users and that criminal laws have to “be amended in accordance with constitutional criteria”.

Why should harm reduction be a priority, if it does not even appear in the Political Declaration adopted by the High Level Segment of the UN in March 2009? … The UN does not support harm reduction as a self-sufficient policy because its definition is controversial, it violates the principals and rules of conventions signed by all member states since the goal of member states is to promote prevention and abstinence, not to maintain drug use,” said Mr. Heintz. After the UN Political Declaration on drugs was adopted back in March, Mr. Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said the debate on harm reduction was “little more than a storm in a teacup. The recent parliamentary debate in Hungary seems to confute this observation.


Mr. Heintz welcomed the decision of the British government to sack professor David Nutt, who “tried to mislead” politicians when he said the use of Ecstasy is less harmful than horse riding. The MP also claimed that “17.000 young people were diagnosed with schizophrenia due to the liberation of marijuana use” in England (nonsense according to the latest research).


Government MPs rejected the claim that the drug strategy places too much emphasis on harm reduction, pointing out that the text contains more than 7 pages on prevention, with many targeted interventions geared towards schools and families. Csaba Winkfein, the Socialist chairman of the Parliamentary Commission on Drug Affairs, emphasized that “it is the indicator of the rule of law how the community treats those who are the most vulnerable.” Gabriella Béki from the Liberals quoted and used the arguments found in the HCLU’s position paper on the drug strategy in the debate, saying that the criminalization of drug users does not lead to less drug use, so it has no social benefits at all.


The Parliament will proceed with a second debate on the draft strategy next Monday and it will be probably passed by the Socalist and Liberal majority. However, parliamentary elections are scheduled to next spring in Hungary and according to public polls the current conservative opposition will win a landslide victory. The previous national drug strategy, that also endorsed harm reduction, was adopted by a full consensus of all parliamentary parties. It seems this common understanding of drug policy is a thing of the past. Professionals are worried that the drug strategy will loose government support after the elections. The national budgetline that funds social and health services has already ben cut back due to the financial crisis. In addition to limited funding opportunities, harm reduction service providers also face growing stigmatization, as Hungarian society witnesses the rise of virulent nationalism and intolerance. In transitional and developed societies where negative public attitudes to harm reduction and drug users abound, a strong and supportive CND position on harm reduction and human rights could save many lives in these hard times.

Posted by Peter Sarosi