Global drug policy: in 30 seconds or less

30 March 2016

Blog post by Dasha Matiushina, Policy Reform Advisor

Since my return from the 59th session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) over a week ago, I haven’t been able to collect my thoughts and decide what exactly I should write about the CND for the EHRN mailing list. However many interesting things happened at the CND – our regional session, Slava Sellars’ great speech at the plenary session, Olya Ponomaryova’s speech at the session on the issues of women who use drugs and behind-the-scenes discussions of the UNGASS outcome document – how can those things be shared in a short blog format? What were the important things I learned in Vienna about the processes of forming the international drug policy? And what should those who weren’t there definitely be made aware of?

The balance of power is the same as 13 years ago when I first came to the CND – the EU supports harm reduction, Russia is against it, the USA supports it in principle but refuses to call it harm reduction. Last year we were happy to hear a strong statement by Latvia (then helding Presidency of the Council of the EU) in support of harm reduction and the need to protect human rights in the drug policy context. This year the Czech Republic’s statement at the plenary session made us happy; it clearly described the impact harm reduction has at the country level: the government explains that the Czech Republic experiences “extremely low social and economic costs related to the use of illegal drugs” because it’s a “drug-free” country but because it focuses on introducing harm reduction programs. Slovenia’s statement is also very clear; here’s a quote: “It’s necessary to emphasize that opiate substitution therapy is the best-studied and the most successful treatment program [for drug dependency]”; the goal of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs in Slovenia back in 1999 is to “encourage” drug treatment. Poland’s statement also mentions harm reduction.

As for non-EU member countries from our region, at the plenary session we didn’t hear them utter words of support for harm reduction. Which isn’t surprising when we talk about Russia and Uzbekistan. The new head of the Drug Control Agency of Tajikistan Sherkhon Salimzoda limited himself to mentioning the intensification of the work to “reduce… the negative impact of [drugs] on people’s health safety” as a result of implementing the national drug strategy.

However, at the regional roundtable meeting the heads of the anti-drug services in Ukraine and Belarus spoke about implementing harm reduction and substitution therapy programs at the country level as a done deal. Substitution therapy as protection of citizens’ constitutional rights. Partnering with the non-governmental sector to achieve the goals of the national drug strategy.  Employment for people diagnosed with drug dependency as an indicator of the municipal authorities’ success. That is, key drug policy strategists don’t doubt: harm reduction works.

Will countries in the region be able to stand against the hardline negative position on harm reduction promoted year after year by the Russian Federation? I think they will, especially if they speak out as a joint regional force rather than on their own. If they make it a rule to dedicate to harm reduction at least 30 seconds of each statement made at a high-level meeting. In 30 seconds one can speak about a lot of things – whether new HIV cases among drug users are on the decline, how many overdose deaths have there been, how many people have access to substitution therapy, and whether government’s financial input in harm reduction has increased.

And here’s where governments need our help. We shouldn’t expect diplomats who represent our countries at high-level international events to be experts in all fields, and we shouldn’t expect them to remember about harm reduction when preparing their statements. Our task is to remind them why this is so important. Why it will help build a positive international image for the country. Present a few figures. Approach them after their statement and thank them on behalf of the community and civil society. Believe me: in three-four years those diplomats and civil servants will contact you first before a CND session to discuss how to reflect the situation with harm reduction in the country statement.

The same is true for the discussion of the UNGASS outcome document that took place in Vienna behind closed doors. As civil society, we are not allowed there. Only official country representatives can participate. From our region, mostly Russia’s voice is heard; it protests regularly and predictably against any mention of harm reduction, against substituting treatment for imprisonment, against naloxone distribution in the community, against educating people about controlled access to painkillers. It’s good that Russia’s approach meets with resistance, at least from Ukraine. But how much more success we would have if all the countries from our region made clear statements at the CND regarding the presumption of health and the fact that drug policy success is measured not in tons of confiscated drugs but rather in saved lives and families.

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