Postcard From New York: Taking Control of Drug Policy

I am writing this from New York where I am spending the week advocating for reform of the international drug control régime with the Global Commission on Drug Policy and participating in the media launch of its latest report Taking control: pathways to drug policies that work, at the MoMA today, Tuesday. My esteemed Commission colleagues and I are hoping that this week´s meetings with the UN Secretary General and the UN diplomatic missions to New York will also serve as an unofficial launch pad for the ensuing debate that will take place in the lead in to the UN Special Session of the General Assembly on drugs scheduled for the first half of 2016.

Reflecting on the past three years, we have certainly come a long way: In 2011 the Commission denounced the failure of “the war on drugs” and of drug policies based on a strictly prohibitionist and repressive paradigm. It called on the world to “open the debate” and move from the ineffective and harmful enforcement-led approaches to policies prioritizing public health and safety. The Commission further elaborated on how aggressive repressive policies have fueled the AIDS and hepatitis epidemics among people who inject drugs and their communities, one of the main themes of my advocacy in my role as Envoy on AIDS in Eastern Europe where policies prioritizing repression are having major negative effects on public health.

The new report of the Commission comes with strong recommendations to shift policies and improve the international drug regime. They cover extensive ground and include:

• Re-orienting policy priorities from punitive enforcement to health and social interventions of proven efficiency;
• Ensuring access of opiate-based medications for the treatment of pain to all those in need;
• Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession; and rely on alternatives to incarceration for non-violent and low level participants in illicit drug markets such as farmers and others involved in the production, transport and sale of drugs;
• Moving to legally regulated markets, to put governments back in control. Move to regulation may begin with cannabis, but should NOT be limited to it, also considering coca leaf and certain psychoactive substances (ATS), as it has recently been done inNew Zealand for ATS;
• Calling on the world leadership to use the opportunity of the 2016 Special Session on drugs of the UN General assembly (UNGASS) to intensify the debate, inform the public opinion, objectively analyze what the current international regime has achieved or — rather — failed to achieve; understand the health, social and human rights-related harms and the waste of public resources that it has generated.

This final point is not merely a rhetorical statement.

It is, I believe, where the tipping point lies: resources that otherwise could have gone to prevent people from using drugs in the first place or to prevent people occasionally using drugs from becoming addicted users, or help addicted people to access treatment and care to protect their health and that of their communities, has otherwise been spent to build more and bigger prisons, create bigger police forces and funded government law and order campaigns.

We who work in the field have known and railed against this unfair scenario for many years but what is different now are the incremental changes we are seeing in government attitudes that I believe are partly being driven by a growing change in attitude in the general community — that drug use ought to be seen as a health issue — not one that guarantees deprivation, sometimes for life.

There is a long way to go but some of the right noises are being made on the road to the much-awaited public debate in 2016. I have no doubt that the Commission´s latest report will help stir that debate and ultimately help re-orient drug policies to towards the noble goals of improving health outcomes, respecting human rights and guaranteeing the well-being of people.