The Hungarian government decided to reject the progressive drug strategy of the country and to draft a new, prohibitionist one. The head of the Drug Policy Program of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union argues that this is an example how a government should NOT draft a drug strategy.
In December 2010 we reported that the Hungarian government rejected the harm reduction oriented national drug strategy enacted by the previous parliament and decided to create a new drug strategy based on zero-tolerance. More than a year later we still do not have an effective national drug strategy in Hungary, but there is a draft strategy harshly criticized by all professional organizations. The public consultation is closed now and the draft is expected to be discussed – and probably fastly adopted – by the two-third government majority in the parliament in the spring.
We have seven reasons why we dislike the new strategy – this can serve as an example for other countries how NOT to draft a new drug strategy!
The previous government was appointed by the parliament to draft the second national drug strategy of the country in 2009 because the long term goals of the first drug strategy (2000-2009) expired that year. The second strategy (2010-2018) was drafted by the Ministry of Social Affairs and its background institution, the National Drug Prevention Institute (NDI) through a long, broad professional and public consultation process with the involvment of all relevant NGOs, law enforcement officials and researchers. In addition, the NDI created an international advisory group from leading researchers, such as Peter Reuter (RAND), Maurice Galla (European Commission), Wolfgang Götz (EMCDDA) or Sandeep Chawla (UNODC). The result was a drug strategy that was praised by the Global State of Harm Reduction report as one of the bests in the world: it was based on a pragmatic human rights and public health approach, setting up clear priorities and comprehensive goals. When the government decided to reject it in December 2010, it did not consult with the civil society or professionals, not even with its own advisory board, the Committee on Drug Coordination (KKB). The decision was made on a pure political ground, the government has never come up with any professional or scientific arguments. They said the drug strategy is “not acceptable” mostly because of its pragmatic approach. When the government launched a public consultation process to draft a new drug strategy there were many critical voices from civil society – but they were not reflected in the first draft, which was more like an ideological pamphlet against harm reduction than a real strategic document. The new zero-tolerance approach got an almost unanimous criticism from professional networks: not only the Hungarian Harm Redution Association said its poorly drafted and not in line with our best knowledge, but the Hungarian Society on Addicion Sciences, the Hungarian Alliance of Prevention Organizations and the Hungarian Alliance of Treatment and Rehabilitation Organizations. This was a slam in the face of the government but it still did not give up the idea of making a drug strategy based on an outdated view on drug policy, so the second draft is not much better.
The draft is based on the idea of zero-tolerance. The text defines drug use as “not a tool of exercizing personal freedoms but a self- and community-destroying behaviour manifesting itself in many levels, so we should fight it with comprehensive social policy actions.” This means that accoding to our draft drug strategy all kinds of drug use is inherently bad and destructive. This is a retreat from our evidence-based knowledge on drugs – we know it is a very complex phenomena and even if drug use is a risk-taking behaviour it is not inherently harmful for the individual or the society. Actually most people who use illegal drugs do not cause more harms to themselves and to the society than the vast majority of people who use legal drugs such as coffeine or alcohol. What makes the use of illegal drugs more risky is the fact that they are illegal. While the previous drug strategy focused on how to prevent the harms of illegal drug use and how to provide access to services for those who are the most vulnerable drug users, the new priority is to protect the non-user majority from the deviant minority who should be disciplined and forced to follow the norms.
The previous drug strategy created a tool to assess the needs and establish the priorities among different drug policy interventions based on the principles of vulnerability, severity and sustainability. The new draft strategy has some very ambitous goals and aims but it did not set clear priorities, it does not even have strategic pillars. In the times of an economic crisis the downsides of this approach are very obvious: there is no guarantee that those services will survive that are really needed to save the lives of people. The budget for community services is reduced by 63 percent from last year and a lot of effective harm reduction programs that have been operating for several years will not be funded any more. One of the needle exchange centers in downtown Budapest, operated by Artéra Foundation, may close down its doors because the government simply refused to fund it. The same happened with a needle exchange program operated by the Baptist Church in a distressed area of Miskolc, a city in the North, and another one in Debrecen, Eastern-Hungary. A few years ago a human rights NGO started an innovative program for pregnant women who use drugs and their babies – but their funding was terminated this year as well. Hundreds or thousands of drug users will go without sterile injection equipment, HIV screening and counceling in the future.
4. Human Rights
Human rights stayed in the center of the previous drug strategy which made several references to international human rights treaties and recommendations. The new draft strategy failed to give human rights its due role as a guiding principle of drug policies. It has no reference to any related documents protecting the rights of people who use drugs but it borrowed its approach to human rights from the World Federation Against Drugs, a strictly prohibitionist organization based in Stockholm, Sweden. It limits its understanding of human rights as a right to be drug-free. This means that protecting human rights is the same as to protect people from using drugs – so the responsibility of the government is to fight drugs and protect the majority who do not use drugs. We know that in reality it is not the non-using majority whose rights are systematically abused but the minority who use drugs – an drug policy is often in and itself the cause of human rights abuses. “Criminalization results in a severe form of discrimination against people who use drugs,” said Anand Grover, the UN Special Rapporteur on the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. We need to protect people who use drugs from discrimination and stigma, not to create policies that generate discrimination and stigma! This is not the only field where the government declared war on minorities: the Hungarian parliament adopted a new law that makes it a crime for homeless people to use public spaces “for living”. This is a very narrow minded and evil approach. I can say, this is against the very principles of Christian morals which they claim to protect.
5. Harm reduction
The first Hungarian national drug strategy recognized harm reduction as “the only cost-effective tool to prevent blood-born infections” and therefore it aimed to improve the access to harm reduction services, such as opiate substitution treatment and needle exchange programs. Notwithstanding, harm reduction is a step daughter of the new draft strategy: the text rarely mentions the risks of infections or overdoses and it even misses to list needle exchange and voluntary HIV/AIDS testing and counceling among its aims! At the same time, the strategy requires a cooperation between treatment centers and Narcotic Anonimous. The text refers to opiate substitution treatment as a form of treatment that “may be necessary” for those addicts “who cannot be treated effectively with other methods”. Thus it is not a must for our government to improve access to OST but only an unpleasant option for those doctors who do not find any other ways to treat addicts. The sea of scientific literature that proves that OST is effective in reducing crime, death and disease does not matter because the priority is to make him drug-free, not to save his life. There is no reference to overdose prevention at all, not to mention naloxone distribution programs. Harm reduction activists will not be in a position to advocate for more harm reduction with this drug strategy. As I mentioned above, needle exchange programs may be closed in the near future. This is especiall dangerous because there is a rising need for sterile syringes and needles because thousands of injecting drug users stopped using heroin and started to inject designer drugs or legal highs. The inject these drugs more frequently and the risk of infections is increasing. The same trend was observed in our neigbhoring country, Greece and Romania, which were law prevalence countries as well – but recently there is a major outbreak of HIV epidemic among their IDUs. If the government does not realize that we face the same danger and if it does not make urgent actions to support harm reduction, the world may soon witness another outbreak of HIV among Hungarian IDUs.
6. Criminal policies
Hungary has one of the harshest drug laws in the European Union: the simple possession of illicit drugs (without any differentiation) in small amounts is a crime punishable with 2 years of imprisonment. In 1993 the parliament modified the drug legislation and made it possible for drug users to avoid imprisonment if they participate in a 6 months prevention or treatment program as an alternative of criminal sanctions. Actually more than 90 percent of those who are referred to these programs are occasional marijuana users who do not need any kind of treatment, so the HCLU has been advocating for a long time to decriminalize drug use. The previous progressive drug strategy stated that criminal sanctions are neither necessary nor effective to deter young people so the criminalization of drug users should be avoided. We hoped that the Criminal Code will be amended accordingly soon. However, our current government says the problem is not that thousands of young people are arrested and referred to treatment every year for simple drug possession. They say the problem is that the current referral system is not strict enough to deter young people from using drugs – so they decided to restrict the law in the spring. This means that the government will spend more tax payer money and more police working hours to catch young people on the streets instead of chasing violent criminals, or spending that money on voluntary treatment and prevention programs. In 2007 the National Focal Point of the EMCDDA made a survey on the public spending on drug policy and found that in comparison with other EU countries, the Hungarian government spends a very small proportion of its GDP on drug policy. What is more, it spends four time more money on law enforcement than on treatment, prevention, harm reduction and research all together! If the restrict the criminal law, this disproportional allocation of resources will be even worse.
7. Civil society involvment
In 2007 the previous Hungarian government created a new system to involve NGOs to drug policy decision making procedures. According to a government decree NGOs working in the field can register for an election and delegate for representatives to the Committee on Drug Coordination (KKB), the main advisory body of the government where all ministries and governmental institutions are represented. This system is a best practice in Europe indeed. As representative from 2007 I can say the NGO delegates refreshed the discussions in KKB with completely new perspectives and provided technical assistance to the government on creating and implementing new policies. When the new government announced at the meeting of the KKB that it decided to reject the national drug strategy, the civil society delegates, including myself, marched out from the hall as a sign of protest and made a press conference condemning this decision. The government has never forgiven us this revolt. So the new draft strategy intends to weaken the civil society involvement and plans to restructure the KKB – they do not say how it will happen exactly, but probably they will either exclude NGO delegates from the governmental meetings and create a forum for NGOs only, or they include their own ideologically reliable NGOs (faith-based groups promoting prohibitionist policies) who have no real support from the NGO community but they support the government. Without strong civil society presence and representation the implementation of the national drug strategy will be neither transparent nor accountable.
Drug Policy Director
Hungarian Civil Liberties Union