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UNGASS 2016: What prospect for change?

With the UN’s drug control policy setting bathed in opaque diplomatic light, civil society advocates are left looking for the subtleties of language and tone to spot any sign of change. The NGOs closest to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world’s drug problem in April aren’t expecting dramatic changes, but they do see things moving in the right direction. Russell Brown canvasses what may happen in New York.

In the words of the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it’s been. Debates at UNGASS 2016, the UN General Assembly’s third grand meeting to discuss and agree policy around drugs, will be inseparable from what happened at the first in 1990 and what took place in the decade that followed, which was characterised by both the UN’s strongest actions to control the supply of and demand for non-medical drugs and growing doubts about the wisdom of the strategy.

That decade was foreshadowed by the 1988 Vienna Convention on Trafficking, which broke new ground in asserting that criminalisation of drug use, and not just trafficking, was also a matter of treaty compliance. It set the stage for UNGASS 1990’s adoption of a Global Programme of Action and the branding of the years 1991–2000 as the United Nations Decade Against Drug Abuse.

The establishment of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) in 1991 was seen as the beginning of a new era in the fight against drugs. A three-day meeting of the General Assembly in 1993 was intended to foster an unheralded degree of international cooperation in the post-Iron Curtain years. It was to be a new era.

“We have the machinery; we need now to make it work better,” declared the British delegation in 1993.

“In particular, we need a more solid international front in support of the 1988 United Nations Convention. This is an instrument with teeth, and we need to make it bite.”

The confidence in this better engineered project to reduce both the supply and demand for drugs echoed throughout the second grand meeting, UNGASS 1998. “A drug-free world – we can do it!” was the meeting’s slogan – and the concluding line of a UN-funded TV ad featuring helicopters spraying herbicides, fields of burning drug crops, armed soldiers and a farmer processing coffee.

Pino Arlacchi, Executive Director of the UNDCP, even put a deadline on it, writing a special article for the UN Chronicle under the headline ‘Towards a Drug-Free World by 2008 – We Can Do It’.

When 2008 rolled around, the Director of UNDCP’s successor, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Da Costa, insisted to the makers of the Irish documentary War Without End that, “I would like to remind you that the United Nations never used the word ‘a drug-free world’. In no official documents of the United Nations you will find reference to ‘a drug-free world’.”

“At the UN today,” intones the documentary’s voiceover, “the ‘drug-free world’ slogan of 1998 appears something of an embarrassment.”

By 2008, the anti-reform struggle had turned to more modest goals – including keeping the phrase ‘harm reduction’ out of any declaration. For the US and its allies, this meant outmanoeuvring European nations pressing for the words to be explicitly included as a reflection of their priorities.

A 2008 US diplomatic cable summarising proceedings of working groups ahead of a 10-year review of progress on the UNGASS 1998 goals to be conducted at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) early the following year complained of the Europeans’ “hard-line”, “dogmatic” and “bad faith” attempts to press their case.

But it noted with some satisfaction that the 1998 compromise language, which said that demand-reduction programmes “should cover all areas of prevention, from discouraging initial use to reducing the negative health and social consequences of drug abuse” had proven “quite durable, consistently being used as a substitute for any explicit ‘harm reduction’ reference”.

The cable noted the support of delegations from Saudi Arabia, Russia, Japan, Indonesia, Tunisia, Algeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Cuba and Sweden in rejecting the push by the UK, the Netherlands, Romania and New Zealand to have harm reduction added as a new ‘third pillar’ to the counter-drug paradigm of supply and demand reduction.

(At that point, the dread phrase had slipped through the net just once, in a 2006 UN General Assembly declaration that affirmed that “harm-reduction efforts related to drug use” would play a role in curbing the spread of HIV infection.)

“The US and its allies have consistently pressed the point that the primary goal is to reduce demand of drugs, not the harm associated with drug use,” the cable declared.

The 2008 cable also complained about another development: NGOs were included in government delegations and, in Britain’s case, allowed to speak for the government. It praised the move by the chair of one committee to “shut down” the Bolivian delegate who called for the removal of coca leaf from the list of substances controlled by the UN drug control treaties.

Sanho Tree, Director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, was present at CND 2009 when, as he puts it, “the term harm reduction threatened the vaunted Vienna Consensus”.

He recalls that Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland and others fought to get the term included, while the US, Russia and Japan led the opposition.

“The Germany Ambassador said he regretted very much that it didn’t explicitly mention the term ‘harm reduction’ but its essence was covered by what the Draft Political Declaration called ‘related support services’. At the end of the meeting, Germany issued an ‘interpretive statement’ essentially declaring that they were going to interpret ‘related support services’ as harm reduction, and more than two dozen countries supported that interpretation. Costa tried to minimise the differences in his closing speech as tempest in a teacup, but the writing was on the wall.

“To be fair, the Obama administration had just come into office in 2009, and much of the US delegation was still working off the established script that year in Vienna. The US delegation did agree to meet with a group of us in Vienna. One ONDCP [US Office of National Drug Control Policy] staffer remarked that it was the first time they were allowed to meet with ‘drug legalisers’.”

The failure of harm reduction to make the 2009 political declaration had a particular effect. It meant that, although harm reduction features in the written domestic policy of more than 70 member states and in documents from other UN agencies, there was no precedent for it to feature in subsequent consensus documents. Even the 2014 joint ministerial statement adopted the workaround “measures aimed at minimising the public health and social consequences of drug abuse”.


So where are we now in 2016? UNGASS has been brought forward two years at the request of the presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala. Latin American countries as a group – always uneasy about the big-guns approach to supply reduction – also made a joint call to review the current system and “analyse all available options, including regulatory or market measures”. Bolivia, which left the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 2011 over the coca leaf issue, has won its case and rejoined the treaty in 2013.

As UNGASS approaches, the US Federal Government is declining to interfere with the regulated, non-medical sale of marijuana in several of its states. President Barack Obama has put his weight behind the increased availability of naloxone, which does not stop people from using opioids, only from dying when they overdose – a textbook harm reduction measure.

 From some angles, it does look like a new era might be approaching. Will it all result in momentous change? Well, don’t expect the world. Don’t even expect to see a consensus around those two words ‘harm’ and ‘reduction’.

“The phrase ‘harm reduction’ itself is still for many member states a difficult and problematic phrase, unfortunately,” says Ann Fordham, Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), which presents a collective face for a global network of 143 NGOs focused on issues related to drug production, trafficking and use.

“We’re still in the dynamic where the EU countries in particular have no problem, and they push very strongly to support harm reduction. But countries like the US, despite their more progressive approach in recent years, still have quite an allergic reaction to the actual term ‘harm reduction’. And of course Russia and China and many of the Middle Eastern countries don’t accept the term.

“What’s changed is that there’s far less fight around the interventions associated with harm reduction when it comes to injecting drug use. We can now refer to the UN technical documents around HIV prevention, treatment and care for people who take drugs – which obviously means endorsement of needle exchange programmes and substitution treatment. That language is agreed. But the phrase ‘harm reduction’ is not agreed.”

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