NGO representatives gathered in Budapest to make recommendations to decision makers about the global drug control system.
In 1998 representatives of national governments from all around the globe gathered at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs to discuss the future of the global drug prohibition regime. The event was held under the enthusiastic slogen: „Drug-Free World – We Can Do It!”. Politicans were ready to fight a 10 years crusade against illicit drugs. The Political Declaration of the UNGASS aimed to achieve significant and measurable results in the reduction of demand and supply of illicit drugs until 2008. And here we are, in 2008, but the drug-free world has never seemed so far from reality as today. Even the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) does not talk about a drug-free world or a significant reduction or elimination of drugs: only about „containing” the problem. However, a growing scientific literature shows the inability of the global drug control system to address the problems of drug production, trafficking and use. Instead of „containing” the problems, prohibition seems to escalate the situation in every possible levels: it creates a huge black market generating violent crime and 500 Billion USD income for criminal organizations, it fuels the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, it pushes the most vulnerable groups to the margins of society and it became an obstacle to introduce effective public health responses to drug related problems. Last year the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the central policy-making body of the United Nations in drug related matters adopted a resolution about assessing the implementation of the 1998 Political Declaration and the 10 years Action Plan. Initiated by the Canadian government, a resolution also called for the involvment of civil society in this assessment process. The Vienna NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs has the not too enviable mission to make the voices of civil society heard in a ballanced manner. In order to achieve this goal, the Committee organized regional consultation meetings for civil society in every regions of the world, including the European Union. The Hungarian Association on Addictions (HAA) hosted the regional consultation meeting from January 24 to January
Unfortuantely there were not as many participants at the meeting as desirable: the NGO Committee had no funds to reimburse travel and accommodation costs of NGO participants, therefore only a couple of EU countries were represented, including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Hungary, Italy, Norvay, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the Netherlands. Some international organizations also showed up, like the Euroasian Harm Reduction Network, IDPC, ENCOD, EURAD, ITACA etc. The agenda of the meeting highlighted three key areas:
1) To highlight tangible NGO achievements in the field of drug control, with particular emphasis on contributions to the 1998 UNGASS Action Plan such as achievement in policy, community engagement, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and social-reintegration.
2) To review best practices related to collaboration mechanisms among NGOs, governments and UN agencies in various fields of endeavour and propose new and/or improved ways of working with the UNODC and CND.
3) To adopt a series of high order principles, drawn from the Conventions and their commentaries that would be tabled with the UNODC and CND for their consideration and serve as a guide for future deliberations on drug policy matters.
The three objectives were discussed by the NGO representatives in three working groups. It was not easy to reach consensus in the working groups where NGOs ranged from the prohibitionist organizations favouring the status quo, like the EURAD or San Patrignano (Italy), to pro-legalization organizations promoting alternatives of the current control system, like ENCOD or The Senlis Council. The discussion was often passionate, especially when participants discussed issues like the criminalization of drug users or harm reduction programs. Most NGOs expressed the need for more felxibility and transparency of the UN drug control system, which is often seemed as hostile or neglectful to civil society opinions. UNAIDS was mentioned as a good example how to involve civil society in a meaningful way, while INCB was criticized by many as inballanced and not transparent body working in an ivory tower. There was a general sense of frustration of civil society toward the uncomprehensible UN system. Some participants think the problems start with the lack of clear definitions of terms and a lack of disctinction between problematic and non-problematic use of drugs. Others were concerned that this kind of distinctions can further stigmatize drug abusers who need help the most desperately.
Most NGO representatives see drug use as a human rights issue and feel that the drug conventions are not compatible with human rights conventions (IDPC will publish a study on this issue soon). Drug user advocates pointed out that drug policy discussion should be about people and not about drugs. They claimed that the right to health should be in the centre of drug control policies. Others mentioned social well-being as a central term. Some participants emphasized that the prohibiton also violates the right to privacy and the freedom of thought. However, prohibitionists denied that drug use is a human rights issue and stressed the importance of the protection of non-users. Many NGOs reported unintended negative consequences of current drug control mechanisms, for example the growing number of overdose deaths, the spread of blood born diseases and escalating violent crime on the streets. There was no consensus among NGOs if criminal legislation can have any direct impact on the general patterns of drug use. The advocates of Swedish drug policy claimed Sweden is a model of effective drug policy, a statement which was criticized by the representative of the Swedish Drug User Union, who said drug users have no access to basic services and their human rights are often violated by authorities. Portugal representatives pointed out that a recent report (published by IDPC) based on the evaluation of the Portugal decriminalization scheme introduced in 2001 indicates positive outcomes and only a marginal increase in cannabis use.
All participants felt that the advocacy role of NGOs is increasing, even if NGOs do not enough to coordinate there efforts. Lack of professional knowledge among decision makers was mentioned as a major obstacle to base drug policy on evidence. The implementation of drug strategies is not monitored and evaluated by governments, and there is a need to ballance supply and demand reduction efforts.
There were interesting debates on whether we need to draft a new, alternative drug convention which embeds harm reduction as a core principle, or stick to reality and advocate for a political declaration that lays more emphasis on public health and the involvment of civil society. Three opinions were articulated by participants. According to the first, we do need a new „harm reduction” drug convention. Others argued that we do not need any conventions at all and individual countries need more room for manouver in formulating their own drug policies. According to the third opinion, we need to maintain the current drug conventions, with or without some modifications in the system. NGO activists who has been working with UN bodies for a longer time pointed out that there is no real chance to change a word in the UN conventions because member states oppose deep structural reforms. They said the maximum what civil society can achieve now is to pressurize the UNGASS to adopt a political declaration with a more progressive agenda (e.g. addressing the problems of HIV/AIDS).
The Vienna NGO Committee shall make a report about the regional consultation meetings, which will be presented at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March – to make sure that the voices of civil society must be heard by political decision makers. (According to gossips, there are two progressive draft resolutions being prepared for the CND: one by the European Union on the proceedings of the UNGASS assessment, another by the Swiss government on human rights and drug control). However, only national governments are in the position to change the drug control system, so there is a need to intensify advocacy activities in national level. The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) had a satellite event after the closing session of the consultation meeting, where we could find out that recently there is nobody to coordinate local public advocacy efforts and there are no resources to launch campaigns to strenghten the committment of pro-reform EU governments to speak out against outdated drug control mechanisms. There are some initiatives, for example ENCOD organizes a demonstration this March in Vienna, and Dutch professionals urge their government to open international debate about drug control conventions – but there is a need to focus more on national advocacy efforts beside high level consultations with government officials.