New directions

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David Gilliver talks to International Drug Policy Consortium executive director Ann Fordham about raising awareness and the changing course of the global drug policy debate.

 ‘It’s clear that the global consensus on prohibition is breaking,’ says International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) executive director Ann Fordham. ‘But that doesn’t mean there’s going to be a new consensus.’ IDPC is a global network of nearly 100 NGOs and other organisations that aims to encourage debate and promote more humane and effective policies across the spectrum of drug control. ‘If we look at the global drug policy debate there’s been some significant shifts in the last few years, with more and more countries looking at the option of the removal of criminal sanctions for drug use and possession for personal use,’ she says. 

The Organization of American States (OAS), for example, has been leading a review of Latin American policy, and is expected to launch two reports later this month – an analysis of the current situation as well as a ‘scenarios’ document on what might happen if countries were to adopt approaches not necessarily based in strict prohibition.

Looking at those discussions, it’s clear that ‘there’s been a massive shift’, she states, but that doesn’t mean that all countries are moving in the same direction. ‘Russia is absolutely entrenched in complete rejection of any kind of harm reduction, for example,’ she says. ‘Human rights NGOs are being shut down on a daily basis, and last year they asked USAID and other multi-lateral bodies to leave the country. They’re positioning themselves as a donor for the Central Asia/Eastern Europe region, and that’s a scary thought – what kind of conditionality will be tied to Russian funding, given that they don’t accept needle and syringe programming? In Russia, 50 per cent of people who inject drugs are living with HIV. That’s a million people.’ 

Is there any effective way to exert pressure? ‘It is the challenge, and it’s why we do what we do,’ she says. ‘There are two lines of advocacy, and one is to show them as increasingly isolationist. They look like they’re on the outside now because so many countries are discussing more pragmatic and public health-based approaches to drug control. The other option that is still really important is to find lines of constructive engagement where possible, and that’s extremely difficult.’ 

Was it any easier in the days before Putin? ‘They’ve always been fairly hard line,’ she says. ‘The difference is that the US used to be the global enforcers of a very prohibition-led approach, but they’re moving away from being the hardliners and Russia is moving into that space. It is a challenge, but we need to keep putting pressure where we can, using relationships with other donor agencies and institutions like UNODC, and reminding the European Commission that they need to focus on Russia because of the neighbouring countries and the rising HIV epidemic.’

There was a fear that Yuri Fedotov taking over as UNODC executive director would signal a tougher approach (DDN, 19 July 2010, page 5), but it seems that may have been unfounded – does IDPC share that view? ‘That was a concern and we did a lot of advocacy work with a strong focus on UNODC because they’re the global lead on HIV among people who inject drugs,’ she says. ‘Mr Fedotov, for a long time, did not come out and make any strong statements about harm reduction or how a punitive approach fuelled the HIV epidemic, but we do think that’s shifting.’

While he made ‘some quite supportive statements’ at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) this year it’s important to remember that it was ‘on the back of sustained advocacy from civil society, and some very concerned donor governments saying that UNODC had to show political leadership on this issue and that Mr Fedotov must not be swayed by the Russian government,’ she states.

 

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IDPC recently published a well-received report in partnership with Chatham House and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) on different approaches that law enforcement agencies could take in managing drug markets – shifting the emphasis from arresting users to problems like violence, corruption and HIV. ‘It sits alongside the drug policy reform work, but it’s also about what we can do today to understand where resources can be best spent and where we’ve perhaps been pursuing wasteful strategies that have actually created more harm,’ she says.

IDPC is also coordinating the Support. Don’t Punish campaign (see next page), which aims to highlight how criminalisation of people who inject drugs increases risks around HIV/Aids and other blood-borne viruses, part of a project to boost harm reduction services in Africa and Asia. ‘The idea is that to scale up harm reduction services you have to address the policy and legal environment in which those services operate,’ she says. 

As well as raising awareness, the campaign is calling for more money for ‘grossly underfunded’ harm reduction services. ‘Globally, people who inject drugs have access to an average of two needles each per year, which is absolutely appalling coverage, so this is a call on donor governments to make a strong commitment. That’s the ‘support’ aspect, and the ‘don’t punish’ element is about removing the criminal sanctions associated with drug use. People are stigmatised and put in prison, where they’re extremely vulnerable to HIV infection because there’s even less coverage of needle and syringe exchange and opiate substitution therapy.’

IDPC’s network of member organisations gives it global coverage, but there are still regions where it feels it needs to reach out to more members, such as Africa, where issues around drug use and trafficking are becoming increasingly important and the response ‘is still quite nascent,’ she says. 

With a steering group made up of representatives from across ten regions, how easy is it all to coordinate? ‘It is a challenge, but IDPC is first and foremost a net­work, and we really believe in the value of having a global coalition of organisa­tions working together. As with any network, there’s a challenge in terms of communications and coordination but we’re living in the age of very good social media and other communications, and there is usually a regional lead to coordinate.’

One key role is to develop advocacy tools for use by partners and members, and regular requests for advocacy training have led to the creation of a toolkit that will be launched at the Harm Reduction International (HRI) conference next month – ‘a set of tools that you can take off the shelf and develop your own advocacy training,’ she says – and IDPC also collaborates with partners to mount drug policy seminars. ‘Local civil society organisations get to sit at the table with the key decision makers in their country. It’s a very important way to ensure that dialogue happens, because it can be difficult for civil society to get in the room with the right people.’

In addition to all this, IDPC actively disseminates the work of its member organisations, helping to increase visibility and build capacity, as drug policy debates have ‘traditionally been quite opaque and complex’, she says. ‘One of IDPC’s key mandates is to try to support to our members and other civil society partners to be able to engage effectively in drug policy advocacy in some of those more complex debates.’

She’s been executive director since 2011, having joined the organisation three years earlier from the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, where she did policy work around injecting drug use and HIV at the same time as studying for a master’s in human rights at Sussex University. 

‘It was the confluence of the two that got me interested in the drugs issue,’ she says. ‘I wanted to write my final dissertation on a really pertinent human rights issue when it came to the HIV/Aids epidemic – understanding the issue of injecting drug use as a human rights issue as much as anything else.’

After learning about IDPC at IHRA’s 2008 conference in Barcelona, a job came up as coordinator and although she was the only staff member for the first year, the organisation has now grown from a network of 30 members to 97, with five full-time and two part-time staff. ‘It was incredibly fast-paced and rewarding, but it has been a total rollercoaster,’ she says. 

So what are her ambitions for IDPC now? ‘In addition to the very important aspects of the networking and civil society visibility, we’re already focusing on 2016 and the next UN General Assembly special session on drugs. We want to increase our reach and our influence in terms of the global debate, because we feel that coming out of 2016 there will definitely be some governments who will clearly have made a break with the current regime. 

‘We want to be able to play a constructive role in those discussions, and support the member states that are moving quickly towards more serious reform.’ DDN