Remarks, Drug Policy Session, IHRC, Vilnius, June 10th 2013


Welcome, thank you, panelists, audience.
I believe this to be a very important session, and to some extent, a new debate for a harm reduction conference.

No doubt: we need to scale up every intervention that is part of the package of “harm reduction”, and in our region, that expansion has to be at a scale that is not comparable with the efforts that are currently going on (even in the “best” cases).

But we also need to advocate, debate, provide evidence, put pressure for changes in drug policies, everywhere and, in particular in this region.

Discriminatory drug laws and policies and hostile law enforcement policies have been fueling the HIV, hepatitis and TB epidemics in the region for twenty years. They have led to millions of unnecessary incarcerations,that often, have placed the health of people who use drugs at even higher risk.

Here, it is not only about lobbying ministers of health and public health programs. It is about opening and supporting a public debate on drug policy reform. It is about opening the debate with the leadership, the government, the parliament, the drug authorities, the press and the public opinion.

In the region, we know that political leaders will invariably respond with calls for continuing and amplifying the fight against the ‘scourge’ of drugs. Actually, it is hard to think of another area of social policy where such a clear lack of progress over the years and all over the world, maintains such widespread political support.

We need to ask ourselves why this is so and I expect today’s session to discuss it.

The main political attraction of “war on drugs” and “be tough on drugs” rhetoric, and of the policies that follow, is that they allow the government to look strong and active on a problem that the public opinion cares about.

The political alternative – that of questioning the ‘tough on drugs’ orthodoxy, of promoting policies that are more tolerant of drug use, or that reduce enforcement or punishment – represents a high risk strategy for any politician.

A political leader considering alternative approaches will be criticized for taking great risks with a ‘leap into the unknown’

In fact, there are lessons we have learnt regarding the impact of more tolerant policies on the level and nature of drug use and markets. Broadly, in countries and states where laws or enforcement practices have been liberalized, there seems to have been a minimal impact on overall levels of use, and positive impacts on drug-related health and social problems, and costs to the state.

But we should also acknowledge that these political dynamics are underpinned by some real conceptual and intellectual problems regarding the case for drug policy reform. One of them is how to address the contention – often stated, and currently the position of the UNODC – that, although enforcement based policies have not reduced the scale of the drug problem, they have at least contained what otherwise would be an ‘epidemic’ or ‘flood’ of increased drug markets and use, with all the related problems increasing accordingly.

The other problem facing the reform-minded policy maker is that the issue is so complex, that trying to replace a simple and seductive political message with one that acknowledges complexity, and recognizes that the government cannot in fact ‘solve’ the drug problem entirely, is a high-risk political strategy. Most policy-makers who have tried this approach, have been criticized as giving in to the drug traffickers and cartels, or for not being tough enough in the fight.

Therefore, considering these political dynamics, it is perhaps not so surprising that so few policy makers have openly questioned the status quo, or pushed for reform.

However, these political realities seem to be changing in some parts of the world, including in the Americas. The harm from drug and from drug policies is different however on the American continent from what it is in Europe and in our region.

So, how to open the debate and the political dialogue in the geopolitical, cultural, social, religious, context of the region? Where are the opportunities ?


I look forward very much to our discussion