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Opponents of the War on Drugs Are Not Satisfied With the UN's Plan to End It

The United Nations is drafting a document that will shape global drug policy in the coming years, but critics say it's insufficiently supportive of policies like harm reduction and decriminalization.

by Samuel Oakford
Mar 14 2016, 10:25pm

Imagen por Orlando Barria/EPA

After decades of prohibition, 2016 could be the year governments around the world admit that the war on drugs has failed. Or, just as easily, they could maintain the status quo.

Next month, the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) will endorse a resolution that many hoped would encourage countries to stop locking up and marginalizing drug users, and instead embrace harm reduction, alternatives to incarceration, and even decriminalization.

But, as the UN's Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND) convened in Vienna on Monday for its annual meeting ahead of UNGASS, nearly 200 civil society groups and opponents of the drug war released a joint letter that said the planning for next month's event is "perilously close to representing a serious systemic failure of the UN system." They called the process "non-inclusive and non-transparent," adding that "challenges to the status quo, even from member states and many UN agencies, have been marginalised and dissent stifled."

Drug reform advocates have long criticized Vienna-centric negotiations over global drug policy. The UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is based in the Austrian capital, as is the CND and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a quasi-judicial body created under the UN drug conventions system. Many countries, including most Caribbean states and a large number of African nations do not have a permanent presence in Vienna. That means they have been left out of the private consultations on the UNGASS outcome document, which will shape global drug policy in the coming years.

Related: Top US International Drug Official Signals Green Light for Countries to Decriminalize

The groups that signed the protest letter feel similarly marginalized, despite attempts to engage with diplomats in Vienna. They view the UNGASS outcome document as insufficiently supportive of progressive and research-backed policies like harm reduction and decriminalization. VICE News spoke with several diplomats in Vienna, all of whom blamed the usual suspects — including Russia, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — for blocking certain language on these issues.

One European diplomat who mentioned those four countries said that "the death penalty, harm reduction, and proportional sentencing" will "probably not be included" by the time the CND finishes negotiations. While the UNGASS outcome document is not legally binding, advocates have imbued it with great significance, often because member states have until recently been hesitant to support scaling back the war on drugs, partly because doing so would risk losing billions of dollars in funding.

"By failing to engage in meaningful critique, new ideas or language, the UNGASS Outcome Document is at risk of becoming an expensive restatement of previous agreements and conventions," the civil society letter said. "This would represent a major failing for the General Assembly — and a betrayal for the member states, UN agencies, civil society, and public who have demanded so much more."

Some diplomats countered that while not perfect, the document, now on at least its third draft, was still light-years ahead of previous UN texts on drug policy.

"The language in the draft, if you compare it to even two or three years ago, it at least covers a lot of the issues that we wanted to talk about," said Antonio Castellanos, Guatemala's ambassador in Vienna. Castellanos added that it's important that the latest draft does contain language about "human beings as the center of policy, human rights and a public health approach."

Watch Is the War on Drugs Working? - The People Speak:

Much of the anger directed at diplomats has crystallized around a failure to include explicit reference to "harm reduction," a term that other bodies of the UN, including the WHO and UNAIDS, have used for years.

"To me, harm reduction should be a red line," said Michel Kazatchkine, a French doctor and AIDS researcher, and the former head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. "I do not understand how this is still a word that cannot be included in a text."

Kazatchkine, who is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, added that many European countries who have pushed the envelope with innovative harm reduction practices like needle exchanges and opioid replacement therapy, have remained "very silent and quite complacent," during the drafting process. "Whereas the conservatives, the Russians, the Iranians, the Chinese, when they put the red line they don't cross the red line."

The Global Commission, which includes former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, businessman Richard Branson and the former presidents of Colombia and Brazil, released a similar statement on Friday, calling the proposed outcome document "long on rhetoric and short on substance." According to the Commission, among the goals of UNGASS should be decriminalization of drug use, and the abolishment of the death penalty as a punishment for drug-related offenses.

Related: Iran Executed More Than 500 People Last Year for Drug-Related Crimes

"The UNGASS process seems to have been manipulated by the forces within the UN that have the most to lose from modernisation and reform, with all dissent stifled by a handful of powerful states," Branson wrote Monday on his website Virgin.com.

The US, whose top international drug official recently said that countries should be free to decriminalize drugs under the UN's three drug conventions, has reportedly kept a lower profile than other world powers in Geneva.

While Russia and other hardliners stand in the way of referencing "harm reduction" outright, the UNGASS outcome document as it currently stands does endorse "opioid substitution treatment, syringe exchange programmes and other interventions to contain" the spread of disease like HIV and hepatitis among drug users.

But advocates say even if the text ends up with some progressive language, the entire process, cloistered in backrooms and hallways in Vienna, is problematic.

"When this UNGASS was called for governments agreed that the issue of drugs was a global problem that requires a global response," said Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, which helped draft the open letter. "However the reality is that the handful of governments with the ability and resources to negotiate here in Vienna have dominated the preparations to date."

Fordham called for diplomats to "keep the negotiations on the UNGASS outcome document open for as long as necessary to ensure an inclusive and transparent debate and that they should not agree to finalized the text of the document this week." Instead, advocates say the document should be finalized — rather than simply approved — at the General Assembly in New York, where every country has a seat at the table.

That appears unlikely, and several diplomats said it would likely be completed in the coming days. Indeed, on Monday evening, Egyptian ambassador Khaled Shamaa, who leads the board guiding the drafting process, told a crowd of diplomats gathered for drinks that "you will be stuck in your rooms until we finish the negotiations."

Asked afterward about the civil society letter, Shamaa said he hadn't heard of it.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford