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Divisions Over Drugs Rise

VIENNA, Mar 17 2014 (IPS) - A top level United Nations conference on drugs has highlighted growing divisions between member states on how to move forward in dealing with global drug problems as calls grow for major reforms in approaches to international drug policy.

The High-Level Review at the latest annual session of the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) – the chief policymaking body for international drug control – in Vienna assessed last week how the organisation is meeting goals for dealing with the global drug problem ahead of the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016.

"We have been taking a certain approach for 50 years and it hasn’t worked. It’s time to experiment with alternatives.”-- Ann Fordham, executive director of NGO, International Drug Policy Consortium

But it ended with a joint ministerial statement that was only agreed at the very last minute after months of fractious debate, with states failing to agree on a common approach to key points, and proposed paragraphs on issues such as the death penalty absent from the final text.

This, say civil society groups promoting global drug policy debate, underlines a growing split in attitudes towards drugs in U.N. member states between those pushing for liberal reforms and those continuing to follow conservative and repressive approaches which evidence is increasingly showing is failing.

Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium NGO, told IPS at the conference: “The joint ministerial statement always comes out, even if individual member states disagree over some fundamental things. But this year things were much harder, it was much more difficult for countries to agree, and for a while it looked like the unthinkable might happen and they wouldn’t agree and there would be no statement.

“But while there was one in the end, and although it was full of watered-down language, it shows there are growing fractures between states on how to approach drug problems and just how big those differences are.”

A number of U.N. member states have recently either undertaken or are planning fundamental reforms to their drugs policies.

In December last year Uruguay became the first country to legalise commercial sales of marijuana and regulate its production. Commercial sales of marijuana began in the U.S. state Colorado in January while sales of marijuana will begin in Washington state in June.

These developments came just months after Latin American leaders used U.N. platforms to deride the body’s approach to drugs. The president of Guatemala told the U.N. General Assembly that the regulated supply of illicit drugs should be considered while his Colombian counterpart told the same body that the U.N.’s conventions “gave birth to the war on drugs …. that war has not been won.”

These reforms have been praised by many third sector organisations working with drug users and pushing for debate on drug policy. They say reform is desperately needed and a traditional punitive criminal approach to dealing with global drug problems has been shown to have failed.

But the U.N. has slammed drug legalisation. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) executive director Yury Fedotov told journalists just days before the start of the Vienna Conference that Uruguay’s decision to legalise cannabis sales was “not a solution to dealing with world drug problems.”

The U.N.’s International Narcotics Control Board has labelled the country’s government “pirates” for going against the U.N.’s conventions on drugs.

The apparent distance between U.N. drugs policy bodies’ thinking on drugs and that of individual member states was further evidenced at the conference itself.

Individual country representatives – particularly those from Latin America which has seen decades of horrific violence connected with the drugs trade – spoke vociferously of the need to move away from criminalisation of drug use to a health-based approach to drugs problems.

Colombian minister of justice Gomez Mendez told delegates: “…people have been sacrificed in our actions to tackle the drug problem….we call for more effective ways to achieve the objectives stated in international agreements.”

Meanwhile, representatives of the Ecuadorian government spoke of “the failure of present drug policies” and said “many voices are calling for a change in paradigm in the understanding and approach to the drug phenomenon.”

This was backed up by civil society representatives who spoke in special sessions and meetings during the conference.

Senior U.N. officials too emphasised the importance of preventive measures, rather than punitive criminal justice legislation, in helping deal with problems caused by drugs.

Michel Kazatchkine, U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said at the conference that “ciminalisation of drug use, restrictive drug policies and aggressive law enforcement practices are key drivers” of serious public health threats such as of HIV and hepatitis C epidemics among people who inject drugs.”

However, despite these warnings, the joint ministerial statement was released without the use of the term ‘harm reduction’ as such language is still deemed unacceptable by countries like Russia which stringently enforce severely punitive anti-drug policies.

This, argued civil society groups at the conference, shows that the U.N.’s drug policy bodies have abrogated their responsibility as leaders in dealing with the global drug problem, focusing on punitive measures rather than a health-based approach.

Joanne Ceste, deputy director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Programme told IPS: “For a long time, UNODC has abdicated its responsibility as the global leader for HIV prevention, treatment and care among drug users because it has had such a hard time getting serious about real advocacy on decriminalisation of minor offences.”

However, there is hope that the current divisions between member states’ views on drug policy could end up providing the impetus for important debate ahead of the U.N. General Assembly special session on drugs in 2016.

Fordham told IPS: “What was interesting about watching negotiations on the joint ministerial statement is that usually when they can’t agree, member states just say, ‘OK, let’s just reaffirm what we said last time’, which was in 2009.

“But this time, even though the eventual statement is much weaker than we would have liked, there were many states that said, ‘no we can’t go back to that. Things have changed, we need to come to new agreements on drugs policy’.”

She added: “There are some governments now, ahead of 2016, that are really pushing for global drugs policy to be debated. We have been taking a certain approach for 50 years and it hasn’t worked. It’s time to experiment with alternatives.”

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