Addicted to Drug Policy Reform: my first CND

31 March 2017

First experiences, especially if they’re mood-altering, tend to be important. They can imprint on your central nervous system for life, driving you to seek to repeat the experience over and over. If a person keeps seeking out the experience habitually, despite obstacles and unwanted consequences, we consider them an addict. In that sense, my love affair with drug policy reform has been one long descent into addiction, with this year’s CND being the proverbial “immaculate fix”.

My name is Mart and I’m addicted to drug policy reform. But that’s OK, because right now the world needs our kind of junkies — in order to effectively fight the global addiction to drug war that’s destabilizing whole regions, causing untold misery, sickness, corruption and gross injustice throughout the world. You need “addicts” like us who truly love their work of peace-and-healing advocacy, and are willing to put their reputation on the line, their careers on hold and sometimes, unfortunately, to wager their health and wellbeing, all in the hopes of achieving meaningful change five, ten, maybe fifty years down the line.

At the invitation of the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN), I attended the 60th, or so-called “diamond” session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs this March in Vienna. I won’t go into detail regarding the nature and working principles of the CND — you can read all about it here. The same goes for most of the side events I attended — each one deserves a separate article, and for every one I participated at, there were three more taking place that I had to miss. Luckily the fine people of International Drug Policy Consortium did their best to keep everyone up to date through the invaluable CND Blog.

When Dasha Matyushina-Otcheret of EHRN told me a few weeks before CND that I, a fledgling member of the newly established Estonian drug users’ union LUNEST, should attend, I was taken aback for a second. Then it dawned on me: this was what I had been working towards for the last decade. I wasn’t dreaming of attending UN level drug policy events, of course, when I began publicly writing about the need for drug policy reform, nor when I helped found the Estonian Medical Cannabis Association. But I think I got an inkling of something like this even being an option after attending a drug policy conference organized by the Estonian Ministry of Justice in March 2016, when professor David Bewley-Taylor of the Swansea University asked the attendees if anyone knew what UNGASS was, and I was the only one to raise a hand.

My first question was — what would I be doing at the first post-UNGASS CND? According to Dasha, my assignments were simple: listen, talk to people, learn, connect with friendly non-governmental organizations and activists, and ask government representatives “difficult questions”. Since the same “tactics” have been a big part of what I did as an NGO member in Estonia anyway, I felt reassured and took the chance of a lifetime.

Now, more than a week later, I’m still going through the enormous stack of contacts, slides, photos, audio notes, papers, reports and flyers, trying to make sense of the emerging picture, which at times seems cautiously optimistic, but frustratingly full of blind spots and occasional islands of sheer, stubborn stagnancy. Two main impressions that I gained from this year’s CND, which give me the confidence that I’ve been treading the right path, were these: that humane drug policy reform on global level is possible, and that the UN is actually doing its stated job. The process is slow, almost incremental, and sometimes moves backwards (as the short-sighted global ban on a couple of fentanyl precursors this year clearly shows), but we’re closer to winning than ever before in the more than 60 year history of pro-scientific, anti-discriminatory drug regulation movements.

My own contribution to the bigger cause remained minuscule this time. I managed to deliver EHRN’s address regarding the need for consolidated drug policy impact assessment at the plenary session, gave out a couple of hundred flyers/invitations to the IDPC- and EHRN-organized side event on the impact assessment tool currently being developed and soon to be implemented in the Baltic region, exchanged thoughts and calling cards with more than a hundred key specialists and activists from all over the world, and failed to chat up any members of the Estonian national delegation in any meaningful capacity (although I must point out that they were very busy, and for good reason — apparently the public health side of our national response to the fentanyl crisis has made our representatives sought-after experts on a problem that’s just beginning to affect the big players like the US and Canada).

The greatest assets of any movement are the single-minded people who’ve chosen to channel their energy into achieving their common goals. My heart goes out to the wondrous, unique personalities that I met in Vienna – like the representatives of EHRN, “Galiu gyventi”/ “I Can Live” Coalition, the Finnish Association for Humane Drug Policy, European Coalition for Just and Effective Policies, International Drug Policy Consortium, Transform Drug Policy Foundation, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, YouthRise, the Robert Carr Foundation, and many, many more.

Alas, some of the most interesting people I met I can’t even mention by name/country/organization, because they are not protected from discriminatory actions at home. Some of the encounters demand a longer back story than I can give here. Some were too personal. All, I feel, were important.

I will leave you with this thought. After the CND, I’m more convinced than before that all decision-makers — in drug policy, as in any other field — are only human. But so are the people who make up the civil society. Wherever you position yourself in the international machinery of drug-policy-making, never forget that the people you’re doing it for don’t have time to waste. Stay on your feet and never get comfortable, even in the very comfortable office chairs of the Vienna UN complex.