Cautious progress

Chris Ford

Dr Chris Ford on the importance of keeping up the momentum…

With some excitement and a good helping of scepticism I set off to Vienna for my first Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), which occurs annually and is the central drug policy-making body within the United Nations system. It was the event that was going to draft proposals for the UNGASS, which we had been working towards for the past three years.

I decided to try and soak up the experience, but when adding the term ‘abuse’ to a UN document was seen as a success, I knew it was going to be a long week.

The main purpose of the meeting was to create an outcome document that would be ‘short, substantive, concise and action-oriented’. It was an opportunity for a detailed examination of the linkages between prohibition, violence and organised crime, the corrosive impact of corruption on many countries, to explore new distribution systems and revisit the ‘world drug problem’.

Proposals had also been tabled to ensure that drug control measures were in harmony with treaties safeguarding human rights and to push back against countries applying the death penalty for drug offences.

Sadly none of this happened. After the week the consensus statement simply reaffirmed the three existing drug control conventions with no admission of flaw, fault or contradiction.

I didn’t get it – how could so many countries not fight for the end of the death penalty, or insist all countries provide humane evidence-based treatment for drug problems? Why did so many allow international diplomacy to miss the opportunity for real change around drug control?

But there were some rays of hope. For the first time ‘access to controlled medications for medical use’ was added. Many palliative care and pain organisations had been striving for this for many years and we had focused on this in our campaign leading up to the UNGASS (DDN, February, page 17).

The ‘outcome document’ signed off in Vienna was immediately adopted in New York, meaning there was no room for change – people found this deeply frustrating. The document didn’t acknowledge the comprehensive failure of the current drug control regime to reduce drug supply and demand, or the damaging effects of outdated policies on violence and corruption as well as on population health, human rights and wellbeing.

UNGASS did not address the critical flaws of international drug policy, call for an end to the criminalisation and incarceration of drug users or even urge states to abolish capital punishment for drug-related offences! Had we hoped for too much? Perhaps we need to accept and celebrate the great work many governments and civil society groups have achieved and the many positive drug policy reforms already underway around the world. This is going to be the way forward – individual countries making changes.

The next international opportunity to address this will be in 2019 when the UN plan of action that calls for a ‘drug-free world’ will be reviewed. We must continue to fight for health and human rights to be at the centre of all future drug policy.

Dr Chris Ford is clinical director of IDHDP.