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In the Americas, the War on Drugs has had disastrous consequences, leaving countries like Mexico with over 60,000 dead, filling prisons with the marginalized and shattering the social fabric of communities. Prohibition has arguably had a greater cost to society than the drugs themselves, and continues to fuel organized crime and violence. Originally called for by Nixon in 1971, the war on drugs has been a catastrophic failure. If any region has paid the price in terms of social, economic and public health outcomes, it has been Latin America, which is why it is no surprise that such member states are vehemently opposed to the continuation of prohibition. As well, the war on drugs has been used as a tool for neocolonialism and to justify overthrowing governments in Latin America throughout the 1980s by Reagan. Several Latin American member states have called for an urgent reevaluation of prohibition leading up to the UNGASS 2016 while at the High Level Segment of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.
Building on this movement of drug policy reform, the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States has produced a special report on the Drug Problem in the Americas, including Scenarios and Case Studies which can serve as tools for debate. At the Commission on Narcotic Drugs these tools were presented to the world at a side event titled, “A Tool for Debate: The OAS Report on Drug Policy” organized by the Governments of Guatemala, Uruguay, Mexico, Colombia, the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC). The full report is available for download on the IDPC website in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. You can find a summary of the event on the IDPC blog. The report presents four possible future scenarios, acknowledging the potential outcomes from different approaches that OAS members can adopt to reduce the harms for drugs in their countries.
As many member states increasingly call for a flexible interpretation of the drug conventions, we can see that some OAS member states such as Uruguay are already experimenting with what the path forward could be. Milton Romani, Uruguayan Ambassador pointed out that there is no one size fits all solution for the world, and that we need to respect countries’ culture, traditions and institutions within the framework of international cooperation. However, HE Luis Alfonso de Alba, Ambassador of Mexico stressed that flexibility in the conventions should not be used for unilateral actions without discussing and evaluating the options with other affected member states.
HE Miguel Samper, Colombian Vice-Ministry of Criminal Policy and Restorative Justice praised the report for institutionalizing discussions which were before “underground” and for opening up a dialog for elected officials to engage in the debate, not just ex-presidents. The debate will not stop here, as over the next month Columbia is hosting 10 forums during which the report will be discussed. Romani closed by pushing for frank debate and an acknowledgement of the spirit of this comprehensive report at 2016 UNGASS. We cannot accept the increasing levels of violence in states in the name of a war that does not respect human rights; we must develop alternatives.
But how do member states gather los cojones to challenge the drug conventions? What are the recipes for success to developing alternative policy frameworks? Open Society Foundations presented a panel in the afternoon featuring representatives from Czech Republic, Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands to share their experiences on developing alternative drug policy approaches centred on public health in their event, “Banking on Evidence: Drug Policy Experiences in Europe”. Hosted by Joanne Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program, this panel explored what elements were needed to lead to the creation of sustainable alternatives ranging from decriminalization to cannabis cafes to harm reduction services (such as needle exchanges and drug checking). The panelists echoed that the key ingredients to sensible drug policy included having a a multistakeholder approach including civil society, experts, scientists, politicians and the general public. For the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Portugal and Switzerland, drug use was controlled under the Ministry of Health, and as such a public health approach was developed. Switzerland pointed out that another advantage of tackling drug use from a public health perspective is that you can also include legal substances, such as alcohol and tobacco.
For each country, the motivation for reforming drug policies and public health interventions was different, ranging from reducing the spread of blood borne infections to preventing overdose to keeping the streets free of crime. No matter what the motivation to change, the benefits of these reforms are clear through rigorous data collection and evaluation. One clear message from nation states who are undertaking “flexible” interpretations of the conventions is that policymaking is a continuous process of tinkering and evaluation. There needs to be a climate in society that is tolerant to change. Moreover, monitoring and evaluations must be used to ensure that these interventions are sustainable and resistant to political change. For the Dutch, the coffee shop model for cannabis was meant to be a temporary solution while the rest of the world caught up to the times, but it has ended up enduring to this day. On top of good infrastructure, the Dutch also pointed to the need for fostering debate on a municipal level so that policy was not a top down process. Town hall meetings were an important element for dialog between sectors and led to long lasting policies. The Swiss emphasized that it was important for policies to come from the grassroots from key affected populations, including people who use drugs.
– Czech Republic
It is clear that the drug conventions have been, and continue to be flexibly interpreted by member states. While it is difficult for countries to challenge prohibition, there is a new consensus emerging in Latin America that this must be done. The aforementioned European states serve as an example that another world is possible, and that member states feel confident in challenging international drug policy when negative outcomes arise. Whatever emerges from the debate, it is clear that drug policies must be adapted to respect human rights, public health and the unique cultural contexts of member states. Too many people have died over this war, and it is time to take money out of the hands of organized crime and focus on the overall health of society, including people who use drugs. While the debate is hot, we have lots of evidence on hand to support a public health approach to drug policy, including the latest scientific statement presented at the High Level Segment last week.