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Why Should You or Anyone Care About This Week's U.N. Anti-Drug Meeting?

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What's on in Vienna this week? Oh it's "The Technical Seminar on Drug Addiction Prevention and Treatment: From Research to Practice."

What on earth can be the reason for holding a drug treatment meeting at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna right before the holidays? Alas, I'm not familiar enough with local tradition to know whether it's as customary as a carol service or just another of the Bush Administration's dying groans -- a last-ditch effort to spend down its budget or influence UN drug policy.

There's plenty of reason to believe that it might be both. The US is the prime instigator of this conference, charmingly titled (in classic UN-speak) "The Technical Seminar on Drug Addiction Prevention and Treatment: From Research to Practice." Don't let the exciting title fool you. What happens here under the auspices of the US, in league with its dear friend Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of UNODC -- who is capable of saying very sensible things, but is also on record as having said that "One song, one picture, one quote that makes cocaine look cool can undo millions of pounds' worth of anti-drug education and prevention" -- may well set the tone of future international drug policy.

Although not directly connected to this conference, we'll know for sure in March. That's when the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), which serves as the UN's governing body on these issues (the UNODC is the CND's administrative wing), will be having its 52nd Annual Meeting here in Vienna. The business at hand will include a Ministerial segment that will sign off on and release a new UN Political Declaration. This follows a year-long review and evaluation of the performance of the policies set forth during the 1998 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, which was the first of its kind.

And why should you or anyone care about these meetings or UN Declarations? Because they have genuine implications in the national, international, and local level. The policies set during that first 1998 UNGASS on Drugs came down firmly on the side of the criminalization of illicit drugs and their users. Its goal was "eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008." Translation: it rubber-stamped the ongoing War on Drugs. In the US, this disastrous, expensive, and ineffective strategy costs taxpayers a cool 12 billion in 2004 alone, and swelled the ranks of non-violent first-time drug offenders in US prisons, many of them low-income or working-class people of color. It has been equally disastrous internationally, from Mexico to Afghanistan.

Now the future of international drug policy rests on what this new UNGASS Declaration will say. And at this very moment, out of your sight and away from the news media, there's a pitched battle being waged in the Demand Reduction Working Group -- one of many working on that document. Representatives from the meetings' participating nations and from outside community-based organizations are arguing amongst and between themselves about the strategies for reducing illicit drug use. Are the collected nations going to sign on to yet another tour of duty with the War on Drugs? Or will this Declaration finally shift the focus of international drug policy towards a human rights, public health-based approach that will serve rather than merely criminalize and punish drug users?

The answer to that question will be particularly important to countries that are in the process of developing their own drug plans. Certainly they should be able to turn to a science and public health-based document. Even 11 years ago, when the first UNGASS Political Declaration and action plans were being written, the science was clear re: the importance of harm reduction and syringe exchange as a mean of preventing HIV among people who use drugs. Even then, there was murmuring about the importance of developing drug policies that intersected with a human rights framework, and of "evidence based" solutions. Times have changed and our thinking has become more sophisticated. Drug treatment has to have a bigger role now; the interplay between drugs and infectious disease is more apparent. The world of drug policy has the opportunity to learn some towering lessons learned from the world of HIV, which long ago learned to include People Living with AIDS in policy discussions. In short, now is the moment for an evidence based, health oriented, human rights based international drug policy.

But will the US stand aside and let that happen? Or will countries developing their own drug policies be denied access to evidence-based drug strategies? Will they be forced instead to rely on the existing official drug plans of countries like the US, which is notorious for exporting the same bad drug policy as it reserves for us at home and for acting out in a belligerent, bullying style at most international forums?

At meetings held here in Vienna, the US delegation and the US mission are infamous for having apoplectic fits every time the term "harm reduction" is raised. They do so despite the considerable amount of harm reduction work that takes place in the States and its proven effectiveness in curbing HIV; despite the amount of federal funding that supports some of the larger programs around the country; despite the promotion of Safety Counts as an HIV prevention intervention; despite widely available methadone; and despite the great work that has curbed overdose and viral hepatitis, and made possible housing and mental health care for people who use drugs.

Still, the State Department and the Office of National Drug Control Policy have happily and successfully ignored these vast accomplishments, and never breathed a word of them to fellow governments at these meetings. The rest of the international community believes that no harm reduction occurs in the States. And for so long as they believe that, they will be less well equipped to counter the resistance of their US counterparts.

Which brings us to the issue of why I'm here and why we need to show up to meetings such this "technical seminar" -- even in mid-December. Because back in July 2008, over 300 community-based organizations from around the world came together under the auspices of UNODC to prepare our own Political Declaration. And while not perfect, our Declaration is inclusive of people who use drugs, human rights, and harm reduction. Still, the work we put into that document will go unheeded and unused if countries like the US (and its allies in the War on Drugs, Russia and Japan) remain resolutely opposed to good policy reform. Someone has to challenge our government or we'll stay stuck in our rut and produce the same tired, regressive UN document no matter who has been elected to the White House.

Anyway that's the scene setting for the next couple of days. There could be some cloak and dagger goings on -- hints of the meeting to come in March. Or it's quite possible that this drug treatment conference is going to unfurl as, well, a very boring drug treatment conference in which case I'll report back on the hairstyles of the US Government delegation. Manana .......

Cross-posted from Stop the Drug War's Chronicle Blog (12/16/08)

Allan Clear is executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition.