Prohibition has failed. Now what?

Source : Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

Dear friends and allies:

Last week, I was in Vienna representing the Legal Network as an NGO observer at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs  (CND), where governments from around the world adopted resolutions and a joint ministerial statement on tackling the « world drug problem. »

The texts of these were negotiated ad nauseum until all countries could agree to adopt them. Yet what struck me most about this CND were the obvious cracks in the so-called « Vienna consensus. »

At this year’s CND, member states were presented with a scientific expert consensus detailing the compelling evidence that harm reduction measures are effective interventions. Scientists also agree that criminalizing drugs, adopting policies that restrict access to harm reduction services, and aggressive drug law enforcement are actually key drivers of the HIV and hepatitis C epidemics.

And yet too many countries are blinkered by ideology or prefer to continue cynically stigmatizing people who use drugs as easy scapegoats in their domestic politicking. Canada, unfortunately, has become one of them. We raised our concerns in January with the Canadian government about this and a range of other issues, in a joint brief with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

While in Vienna, we met with the Canadian delegation and again raised our concerns. But all that our diplomats were allowed to say on the subject was that they couldn’t really say anything.

At the end of the day, in their joint ministerial statement, member states « noted » that countries which have implemented the interventions recommended by UN agencies « have remarkably reduced the number of HIV infections » among people who inject drugs. And yet all they could agree to do is « encourage » states  » to consider providing » those measures.

But thankfully there’s a more fundamental shift happening.

Uruguay, and the US states of Colorado and Washington, have moved to legalize and regulate cannabis – developments not easily reconciled with existing UN drug treaties and which generated a lot of buzz at CND. But even more importantly, we’re seeing a growing number of countries declaring openly that the current regime is broken and has failed.

Latin American countries are leading the charge. As the head of Uruguay‘s delegation observed, there is « overwhelming evidence » that current policies of drug prohibition « have failed, » producing a « spiral of violence » over the decades. He declared, « it is . . . our duty to our people » to recognize this failure and to instead adopt new approaches. Wise words.Ecuador went even further, calling for a new, single drug convention to replace the current treaties, while dozens of countries are now routinely asserting that drug policy should be based on evidence, on human rights and a concern for public health. And in a report much discussed at this year’s CND, the Organization of American States (OAS) has openly considered one possible scenario of legalizing and regulating drugs.

These cracks in the « Vienna consensus » will only grow wider. Two years from now, member states will meet in a « special session » of the UN General Assembly to debate the direction of global drug policy. By then, it will be almost 20 years since the UN member states unanimously declared their goal of a « drug-free world » and adopted a failed Plan of Action heavily focused on criminal prohibitions and penalties as the means of getting there.

But as that meeting looms, here’s the big question: will enough governments finally recognize, after a century of drug prohibition and untold trillions ofdollars wasted and lives destroyed, that the « war on drugs » has failed? Harsh laws don’t work, but we have evidence of what does, including harm reduction – hence the growing call for resources to be redirected to these measures and away from harmful, ineffective policing and imprisonment. Some countries are already voicing this opinion. More will likely join the call for change.

In advance of the 2016 meeting of the UN General Assembly, when the world adopts a new global plan of action for responding to drugs, Canada must finally decide to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Read our brief to find out more about some of the issues at the heart of the debate that will heat up over the next two years.


And stay tuned.

In solidarity,

Richard Elliott
Executive Director

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