Written by Orsi Fehér of SSDP Austria
The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) assembled in Vienna the last week of September for a series of intersessional meetings focused on the follow-up to the UNGASS outcome document. Each day was dedicated to debating one of the first few chapters of the document, which was finalized during the 2016 special session. Topics discussed included demand reduction, access to scheduled substances for medical and research purposes, human rights, youth, children, women, and communities. Several members of SSDP Austria attended these sessions to ensure the voices of youth were present in the room.
The follow-up process to UNGASS was a new concept that we haven’t encountered at the UN before. Apparently, after speaking to some staff of the Vienna NGO Committee (VNGOC), it is a new but celebrated occasion for civil society as it gives us an opportunity to hold the CND accountable to its word. Without going into the excruciating details of the whole ordeal, I will share with you our critical impressions.
The first day saw the seats unusually filled and I left the UN’s building confused with an unusual optimism. Attending several CND meetings this year, I have come to learn that there is a limit as to how progressive these meetings can be, but by opening the floor to civil society, the air in the room was distinctly different to what we experienced at previous gatherings. Right off the bat, Gilberto Gerra, Chief of the Drug Prevention and Health Branch of the UNODC, challenged the narrative of prevention techniques directed at children by recognizing the absurdity of an approach that contrasts morals and substance abuse.
As the hours passed, I had a feeling that the importance of harm-reduction as a guiding principle seems to have settled into the heads of the UNODC. But somehow they miss the connection on how their pursuits are destined to fail in the current model of drug prohibition. There was a lot of discussion about the harms of the stigma attached to drugs and drug use. Yet it was never mentioned that even by admitting to possession of a scheduled substance, one declares themselves to be a criminal in the eyes of many, which has pretty similar consequences in many different cultures. Derogatory words towards people who use drugs such as “junkie” come from this prejudice.
Even though the second day, which focused on research and medical access to substances, could also be described as progressive, there was nearly zero mention of psychedelic research. Many openly talked about the lack of evidence indicating the success of current prevention methods, implying a need for reform in the way young people are engaged. A more rounded discourse took place about access to pain medication with professionals who work in the field of palliative care, including an outstanding delivery by professor David Oliver.
Though seldom, I detected some person-first language at the UN for the first time. Despite the fragmented process of the entire global drug policy mechanism, I really think that giving a voice to those who are affected by the policies is an important step. Our friends from the Harm Reduction Coalition, YODA, INPUD, and Help not Handcuffs, through video messages and live interventions, introduced a completely new perspective into the conversation, giving a face to people who use drugs and boldly advocating for decriminalization.
How much this translates to national policy change is out of my sight, and I fear out of the UN’s sight as well despite the fact that, as Russia put it, these “conventions are the cornerstones of the international drug policy system”. The importance of rewording the drug conventions was also stated by Russia. It is perfectly in line with the hideous narrative of the conventions to argue that because overdoses claim thousands of lives a year, nation states are actually protecting fundamental human rights by focusing national efforts on eradicating the cause of overdose rather than focusing on preventing overdose.
One noteworthy surprise was the more interactive nature of the event. After China read their statement that outright declared human rights less important than the “safety of the majority from drugs”, the UK addressed the ignorance of such a philosophy in the most diplomatic way possible.
I managed to speak to several delegates this time, and the absolute MVP of the entire session was Canada, who actively tried to engage with the panel and articulated the country’s successes in dealing with health problems related to drugs as a result of their reforms in the public health sphere. On the contrary, Malaysia stressed the importance of aiding recovery but then boasted about their postgraduate program on substance abuse, while advocating for a drug-free society. I wanted to learn more about how these two seemingly contradicting ideas (at least, to me) would work alongside each other, and whether they are aware of the increasing evidence of psychedelics aiding recovery. As their delegate admitted, however, “without his expert”, he was not really able to engage in discussion due to the lack of his “knowledge of these drugs”. As noble as the intentions of these respective governments seem to be, how is it that ordinary students have a better understanding of controlled substances than people in a position to make decisions about them?
To conclude my thoughts from last week, there is a subtle and infuriatingly slow shift in the way the CND deals with drug policy, but there is a shift. We need to make our leaders see how prohibitionist policies defeat their stated intentions of helping eradicate overdose and addiction, and demonstrate how the international drug control system they have set up prohibits even the most well-intentioned countries from achieving human rights. To all SSDP students: let’s use our privilege and help our peers in countries where human rights are anything but a priority!