News about the disappointing content of the Political Declaration to be adopted at the High Level Segment of the 52nd Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) next week in Vienna is filtering to the outside media. Meanwhile, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is gearing up to claim success for the failing international drug control system.As political leaders from around the world gather on March 11-12 in Vienna to review the last 10 years of the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS), and set a framework for the next 10 years through a Political Declaration, there are signs that the global consensus on international drug control is breaking. News about the disappointing content of the Political Declaration to be adopted at the High Level Segment of the 52nd Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) next week in Vienna is filtering to the outside.
One of the targets of the 1998 UNGASS was “eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008.” These targets have not been met – on the contrary, global production of cocaine, heroin and cannabis has increased – but the same illusory target will be set for the upcoming decade again in a new Political Declaration.
The problem is compounded by the statement that member states agree to ‘actively promote a society free of drug abuse’, which is a phrase horribly reminiscent of the 1998 slogan – ‘A drug free world, we can do it!’ We are left wondering if the CND has learnt anything at all from the last 10 years – and will commit itself to actively promote something that has proven to be impossible to achieve.
News about the disappointing results of the 10-year UNGASS review is now slowly reaching the media. In its leader, Failed states and Failed politics: How to Stop the Drug Wars, the influential weekly The Economist, concludes: "Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless." In a series of reports The Economist illustrates the distressing impact of the ‘war on drugs’.
The Guardian published a devastating comment, Never mind the evidence - a drug-free world is nigh, last week. "The harm caused by prohibition is staggering, yet still politicians cling to the blinkered ambition of a global 'war on drugs'," the comment says. The newspaper points to the most disappointing issue of the new Political Declaration, which fails even to mention the most significant successful drug policy achievement of the past decade – the introduction of harm reduction approaches to counter problematic drug use and the spread of the HIV/AIDS, other blood borne diseases and social exclusion.
“Until recently there had been strong indications that the Vienna talks would consider a more pragmatic and compassionate approach,” The Guardian notes. “EU countries, backed by some Latin American states, Australia and New Zealand, have been lobbying for the new declaration to explicitly mention harm reduction for the first time. But such optimism has evaporated, as the EU line founders, with the Vatican issuing a statement that harm reduction leads to the liberalisation of drug use and so is ‘anti-life’, while the US, Japan and Russia continue to veto anything other than zero tolerance.”
The position of Russia is particularly appalling. Over the decade since the 1998 UNGASS, there has been a significant increase in the number of drug users in Russia. At the same time it has been experiencing the world’s fastest growing HIV epidemic, with injection drug use functioning as a major driver. The amount of people living with AIDS increased from 40,000 in 1997 to 940,000 in 2007, according to a recent report. That amounts to an increase of 2350%. More than 80 percent of the nation’s cumulative HIV infections have been due to injecting drug use. Essential medications to counter the pandemic, such as methadone and buprenorphine for opioid substitution treatment, are illegal in Russia, adding to the misery of millions of drug users. Nevertheless, this country pretends to tell the rest of the world what the best drug policy should be.
Some governments have challenged this complacency and have tried hard the past six months to insert human rights, harm reduction and a developmental approach to illicit cultivation in the declaration. However, the ‘zero tolerance’ approach has prevailed, due to the pressure of the US, the Russian Federation and Japan. Notwithstanding the clear endorsement of harm reduction in the EU drugs strategy and its action plan, Italy decided to stab its European partners in the back and join the drug warriors.
Meanwhile, the UNODC is gearing up to trumpet the success of the current international drug control system. Since it cannot show any success over the past decade, it changed strategy and is now claiming positive results of 100 years of drug control, coinciding with the anniversary of the Shanghai opium convention of 1909 that signaled the dawn of the prohibitionist drug control paradigm. In the briefing Rewriting History, TNI already showed that the UNODC is trying to hide failures behind a bad history lesson comparing current drug control with Chinese opium production and use in the early 20th century. Twisted logic is used to fabricate comparisons with higher production last century.
Surprisingly, the UNODC website seemed to show a sudden shift in the position of the UNODC. Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa apparently called for "opiate substitute therapies (OST), needle-exchange and other scientifically proven harm reduction measures to be made available worldwide" and that this should be "explicitly stated in the Political Declaration" to be published next week. He said that it is "negligent to follow a strategy which has allowed the death of thousands of people and which continues to unnecessarily expose millions to HIV and AIDS when science has provided simple solutions to significantly reduce the number of new infections." Unfortunately, when clicking on the ‘read more’ button it becomes clear that the message is part of an imaginative protest campaign to expose the damage caused by misguided United Nations drugs policy.
The International Drug Policy Consortium – a global network of national and international NGOs that specialise on drug control issues of which TNI is a member – calls on all national delegations in Vienna to register in clear terms their disagreement with the outcomes, and to call for a more coherent, system-wide and balanced review to create a drug control system that is fit for the 21st century. As members of the IDPC, we cannot but reject this Political Declaration and Action Plan, as it falls way short of what we consider should be basic UN guidelines for drug control for the coming years.
See the press release of IDPC:
United Nations drug policy review: Out of ideas and out of touch, March 9, 2009.
Coherence Not Denial
Alone among UN agencies, CND continues to block support for harm reduction
A Statement from Harm Reduction Networks to the High Level Segment of the 52nd session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs
Vienna, 11—12 March 2009