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Live From the 53rd Annual UN Drug Policy Meeting: Ready for the 21st Century?

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On the harm reduction/drug policy circuit party trek, it's time for the annual United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drug (CND) meeting in Vienna. This "select government only" gathering is fast becoming a party favorite for harm reduction and drug policy reform advocates. For those of you unfamiliar with the joys of the CND, it's the principal governing/policy-making body within the UN system on drug control issues.

Last year's CND meeting, as you may recall from my posts at the time and plentiful major news coverage was a monumental to-do. Its purpose was to evaluate the goals and policies it set in 1998 -- which boiled down to the slogan "A Drug Free World: We Can Do It!" and the criminalizing approach known as the War on Drugs -- and make recommendations for the next decade.

And how did it go, this review of the progress towards a drug free world foretold in 1998 to occur in 2008? (Basing this belief on interpretations of the writings of Nostradamus seemed a reasonable enough guide in 1998.) Did it acknowledge that the War on Drugs had been a costly, ineffective war on women, families, people of color, and the poor? A prison-filling proposition?

Not on your Nelly!

During CND 2009 that failed 1998 goal of a drug-free world was never so much as mentioned let alone analyzed or redressed. Instead, without a hint of embarrassment, the meeting contented itself with lauding the "considerable" progress made in the battle of against drug abuse while acknowledging that there is "a long way to go."

The result? CND 2009 ended in chaos as 26 countries, mostly European but not only, broke the traditional consensus and publically distanced themselves from the final Political Declaration document.

This final dramatic rift was the culmination of a year of wrangling over the inclusion of the words "harm" and "reduction" in consecutive order in the Political Declaration. Harm reduction represents a public health-oriented approach to drug use and is an addition to the arsenal of incarceration, crop eradication, and drug treatment. It works on an individual level by providing resources to drug users so that they can remain alive (overdose prevention, safe injection facilities) and disease-free (needle exchange). It recognizes that drug users have human rights and are entitled to a voice in development of policies and programs as they relate to their lives and liberty. It also seeks to redress the harm caused by current drug policy approaches.

All of which makes perfect sense -- unless you're the CND.

This is what a group of (mostly European but not only) countries found out when they attempted to move the CND out of the 16th century and into the 21st by challenging the traditional hegemony enjoyed by the US and other countries invested in the status quo, aka the War on Drugs. These more progressive harm reduction and public health-oriented countries stood their ground for as long as they could, pressing for a more balanced approach to global drug problems.

But it all came to a head when the Papal See (aka the Vatican, that bastion of clearly envisioned and enlightened heterosexist patriarchy), proclaimed harm reduction as an ungodly philosophy and rescued the world from progressing to a new century. Once the Pope came out, so to speak, the unity of the European bloc quickly cracked.

Which is not to ignore the US' giant leap forward at last year's CND. Thirty years into the HIV epidemic, the US did take the step of announcing at every opportunity that it recognizes the validity of syringe exchange as an effective intervention for interrupting the spread of the virus. But it stopped there, finding the term "harm reduction" too vague and ill defined for its taste.

This year's CND is destined to be less controversial than last. In fact, I'm willing to bet that the quiet insanity of earlier meetings is probably gone forever. Reform advocates now have the meeting marked on their calendars; they bring an intelligence and thoughtfulness to Vienna that had been lacking previously. Human rights are firmly on their agenda alongside a place and a voice for drug users themselves. And harm reduction as an issue won't go away.

Like it or not, a number of the issues that were raised last year will appear in various resolutions to be presented this year.

For example, a resolution on access to opiate based pain medication will make an appearance. Too many people live with unnecessary and treatable pain due to lack of access to opiate based medications. This US sponsored resolution will, if adopted, pave the way for countries to ease up on their restrictions on access to pain medications.

And then there's the universal access to HIV care resolution in support of this year's International AIDS Conference (to be held in Vienna, home of the CND). It includes the words "harm reduction" and explicitly recognizes the role of drug users as integral to any informed response to the HIV epidemic. The drafters of the resolution have defined harm reduction in line with a World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Technical Guide to which the US has already agreed. So what's the US going to do this time around? Endorse the resolution, stand on the sidelines, oppose it, or try to water it down further?

Anything less than full support would be a reflection as to how little progress has been made since President Obama's inauguration. It also suggests, should the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator continue facing different directions, that there is not a consistent vision of an integrated HIV/drug policy within the US.

It may be an overstatement to declare that this will be an interesting week. Still, it very well might be one. Stay tuned.