Consensus politics

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Ann FordhamAs ever, this year’s meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs proved a controversial affair. But despite failure to reach agreement on major issues like the death penalty, hears DDN, things may be changing below the surface

According to executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Yury Fedotov, the recent 57th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna enabled UN member states come together to strengthen their responses to world drug problems. However it seems the event was characterised more by increasingly entrenched positions than any kind of agreement.

Although held against a backdrop of shifting drug policy – in places like Colorado, Washington state and Uruguay – much of the event’s feedback has been negative, with talk of progressive nations giving in to hardline states like Russia (see news story page 5, and comment facing page). Harm Reduction International (HRI) and the STOPAIDS network of organisations even urged the UK government not to sign the joint ministerial statement adopted at the end of the first ‘high-level’ segment of the event. 

However, although that statement may have ended up an unsatisfactory compromise – with states unable to reach agreement on the death penalty, for example – much of what was act­ually said in Vienna may indicate something of a shift towards a more progressive approach.

‘We went to the high-level segment with the expectation of being quite disappointed because the statement was so watered down,’ International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) executive director Ann Fordham tells DDN. ‘But it was heartening this time to see countries like Switzerland, Norway and the EU operating as a block being very firm on the need for the abolition of the death penalty.’

Many of the individual country statements in the CND sessions were similarly progressive, she points out. ‘Obviously because the joint ministerial statement is a consensus document, their positions were watered down but they did make quite strong statements. All the EU countries were talking about health-based policies, most of them speaking out against the death penalty and many being very frank about the failure of criminal sanctions in deterring people from drug use. That’s huge progress. It’s unprecedented to have that many countries come out and say we need to decriminalise drug use.’ 

What was particularly surprising was the position of some Latin American countries, she stresses. ‘They were really digging their heels in and being really strong and outspoken. The big surprise for us was Ecuador. We weren’t expecting them to be quite so strong but they said “we need to review the UN conventions, they’re outdated” – most countries wouldn’t go that far. Mexico was also making it very clear that they felt there needs to be an honest and open debate on drug control.’

There remain a significant number of nations maintaining that no debate is needed, however, including, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and others. ‘But then you’ve got Europe who’ve been strongly basing their drug control policies on health of late and I think they were more open this time about the need for a debate. Then of course we had Uruguay who are on the brink of finalising their cannabis regulation.’

While Fedotov has been dismissive of Uruguay’s move, stating that it was ‘very hard to say that this law is fully in line with legal provisions of the drug control conventions’, Uruguay used the CND to claim that it was within the spirit of the conventions as its aim was to ensure public health and security. ‘It was interesting to see that dynamic play out, but what was also interesting was that the other Latin American countries aren’t necessarily completely supporting Uruguay because they have to be quite careful,’ adds Fordham.

‘I think you have to read between the lines. Obviously we’re disappointed, but the global political process does move at a glacial pace and if you’re watching closely then you can see the nuances, of which there are many. If you take the cannabis regulation initiatives, in Uruguay and the US states, that trend is irreversible. Vienna is still a very closed-minded, consensus-based model of working that makes progress very limited, but it’s creating a different backdrop to the general discussions. 

But it’s at the side events where the real debate takes place, she points out. ‘This year they were incredible. Uruguay had an event where they presented their cannabis regulation initiative and I’ve never seen one that packed, and it wasn’t just NGOs in the room – it was mostly government. The US were in there, furiously scribbling notes.’ 

Scheduling of substances was a central issue, with many countries worried about the proliferation of new drugs. There was a debate around ketamine, which WHO had been asked to review but failed to recommended for scheduling because of the number of countries – particularly in the developing world – that rely on it for anaesthesia.

‘That’s particularly true for emergency operations in conflict situations because apparently it’s very easy, if someone’s been shot, to just give them an injection of ketamine and then there’s no need for any other complicated anaesthesia,’ says Fordham. ‘Ketamine’s not under international control so you can carry it across borders but if you were to put it under international control, and this is a pretty serious indictment of the international drug control system, it would severely limit access. CND can’t just schedule something that WHO has recommended not to be scheduled, but there’s this push from countries like Thailand and China, and WHO colleagues are very concerned because many countries would be severely affected.’

Did IDPC’s experience of the event alter their expectations for the milestone 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session? ‘I’m not sure how hopeful we should be, but it’s heartening to see that some countries genuinely no longer have the appetite to just carry on with this charade of a global consensus,’ she says. ‘There really were some countries that have just had enough of that. Places like Uruguay and also Columbia said that they have a duty to their citizens to do the best they possibly can. That involves looking at alternatives and having countries put that on the table is really important. Where people have come away very pessimistic I can understand that, but you also do have to recognise that those things haven’t been said in those rooms before.’