Everyone knows that Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States last Tuesday, Jan. 20. As an advocate for sound, sane drug policy and HIV prevention, I hope that his inauguration will mark a change to an administration that chooses science over dogma.
By contrast, practically no one knows about the Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting that will take place in Vienna, Austria, six weeks from now, March 12-13. This meeting of United Nations member states will review the results of the1998 U.N. General Assembly Special Session on drugs that set the framework for the last decade's international drug policy. They will then release a political declaration that will set the framework for the next decade -- and, by implication, the course for the global response to the HIV epidemic as it affects drug users.
It is imperative that the new Obama administration act quickly to ensure that the U.S. delegation to this upcoming UNGASS review reflect Obama's publicly stated position that he, per the official White House site, "supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of [HIV] infection among drug users."
Otherwise, our new president will miss a vital early opportunity to lead us back into an era of evidence-based policy.
Our current U.S. delegation is primarily made up of State Department bureaucrats soldiering in the war on drugs. They promote policies that have had dramatic negative consequences (intended and unintended) on the lives of drug users, their families and their communities but very little impact on reducing drug supply, consumption or cultivation.
By making drug use as dangerous as possible, the United States has facilitated the spread of HIV and viral hepatitis, has allowed death from overdose to remain unchecked and has created a prison system unlike anything since the Soviet gulags. At the same time, U.S. commitment to providing effective drug treatment on demand is virtually nonexistent. Moreover, in critical negotiations in international settings, Team USA is rabidly hostile toward harm reduction and syringe exchange at a time when Australia, Canada, Iran and most European Union countries embrace them as important drug policy tools.
The UNGASS review presents an opportunity for the Obama administration not only to lose these Bush-era ideologues, but also to join with other nations to create a genuinely balanced and useful blueprint for international drug policy.
We should follow the example of other U.N. member states, including some countries in the Caribbean as well as the U.K., and the Netherlands, and expand the U.S. contingent to include members of civil society -- people with a distinct viewpoint who can engage in the proceedings and represent the views of drug users.
After all, countries around the world, including the United States, have long understood the importance of including people living with HIV/AIDS at U.N. meetings. Yet, when it comes to making U.N. drug policy, the current U.S. framework renders the most affected community, individuals who use drugs, silent. It will be easier to design effective solutions with input from all affected parties.
In July 2008, over 300 representatives from civil society came together under the auspices of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to provide input into the UNGASS review at a meeting called Beyond 2008. The resulting declaration was designed to partially mirror that being produced by the formal government review process. This consensus-based document, while imperfect, directs governments to address global drug problems in a proportional fashion and redress the imbalance caused by focusing on the supply side of drug policy.
(Try getting consensus in a group that includes the Drug Free America Foundation, National Narcotics Officers' Associations' Coalition, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and the American Civil Liberties Union! And that's just part of the U.S. contingent.)
The only government that was arrogant enough to meddle in the formative process was (surprise) the United States. But despite all that preparation -- and three days of meetings -- the Beyond 2008 Declaration is destined to be sidelined at the UNGASS review meeting, as there is no clear indication from the Commission on Narcotic Drugs that the views of civil society will be included in the March meeting.
Who benefits from keeping the voice of civil society out of the UNGASS review process? The United States and Russia, primarily, as they both maintain positions that civil society opposes. The United States wants to keep syringe exchange and harm reduction off of the agenda; the Russians want to continue to demonize methadone.
In a letter co-sponsored with our allies at Physicians for Human Rights and co-signed by more than 60 public health and human rights organizations, the Harm Reduction Coalition has asked the Obama administration to immediately appoint a more progressive U.S. delegation to the UNGASS review process -- one that reflects the president's stance on syringe exchange and puts civil society at the table where it belongs.
The time has come to return to drug policy based on best medical practices, to recognize the human rights of drug users and to produce a political declaration that will shift the focus of international drug policy toward a public-health-based approach that will aid rather than hurt drug users.