Written by Sara Velimirovic ’15 of SSDP France
On May 8th, 2019, the International Narcotics Control Board, the United Nations’ watchdog of the drug control conventions, organised a hearing to better understand the reality on the ground of young people and drugs, seeking input from nine NGOs from Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America. I delivered a statement in front of SSDP and the broader Paradigma global youth coalition, representing thousands of youth around the world who use drugs, work with people who use drugs, and do academic research. I had a great time and I am sharing here what I learned.
Hearing on topic of “Young People and Drugs”
The hearing was organised in Vienna, Austria in the one of the meeting rooms of the large UN building complex erected in the 1970s on the bank of Danube. Spacious hallways and nation-state paraphernalia sets the backdrop of these spaces, known for a curious lack of air circulation that sometimes favours comfort over the exchange of ideas. I know this hard-to-navigate complex from the annual Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) I attended a couple of times. I left each time feeling frustrated at how slow things move around here, and how complicated it is to answer the question “How can I do more?” This time the INCB organised a hearing specifically on Young People and Drugs, and things were a bit different than usual.
For the thirteen INCB members elected for five year terms, membership is not a main function and they meet only once a year for a board meeting, the occasion of which this hearing took place. On paper, the INCB is “the independent and quasi-judicial monitoring body for the implementation of the United Nations international drug control conventions”. They do two major things: allocate licences for annual amounts of controlled medicine – mostly opiates for pain relief like morphine – in order to maintain control of legal supply, and they help with country visits of missions who gather information for the annual INCB report.
I learned from a higher official at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that in reality, the INCB is comprised of what these 13 board members are and what they think. This is what made the opportunity to speak up about young people and drugs more valuable than I could have expected. All 13 board members were present at the hearing, scattered in comfortable chairs across the room along with members of the Vienna NGO committee and INCB employees. Four speakers delivered statements in person, others through video. It was a closed hearing, so no other UN employees could attend.
To summarise our statement, after thanking the INCB and UN institutions for this opportunity, I confirmed what the INCB already knew: the idea of the drug war is dead. Our main points were that harm reduction saves lives, criminalisation and incarceration is bad for young people, science should inform policy, and that the approach of drug policy going forward should be to provide support to young people.
When the floor was open for debate, five people from the Board replied more or less directly to the Paradigma statement. There was genuine praise and gratitude for vocalising a non-traditional stance on how youth should be supported in relation to drugs and two conclusions of the hearing stood out. The question of young people and drugs is a complex issue. I see this as huge progress in the UN institutions considering the crux of War on Drugs philosophy is that there is an easy answer to youth&drugs. Second, “what we are doing here” (drug policy) should be centred around the person, not the substance. This is also huge progress because the main goal of the War on Drugs was – and still is – to conceal the control of population behind the notion that a substance or plant, once consumed, abolishes human faculty.
We moved forward by saluting the INCB’s close cooperation with the World Health Organisation on the scientific review on cannabis, as well as inviting them to open up to similar processes regarding substances such as MDMA, LSD and Psilocybin regarding recent scientifically rigorous research. The WHO’s role in drug policy has gained more and more traction since the 2016 UNGASS and is likely to increase as more Member States recognise science as the basis of policy.
Finally, we recommended the INCB make more space for young people to share their experience within the formal channels of the United Nations through encouraging Members States to invite young people and researchers as part of official delegations to the CND. If the INCB makes an effort to create space for young people to learn and flourish within the scope of their involvement with the UN, our statement read, we promise you it will come back tenfold.
Lessons on Talking to Decision Makers
Moving forward on drug policy, I said, requires looking back at the driving motivations of decision makers when the War on Drugs idea enveloped the whole world. Motivation, we know from leading authors of the drug reform movement such as Ethan Nadelmann and Johann Hari, was racism and stigma against drug users which inspired Harry Anslinger, the first US drug tzar who significantly expanded the scope of enforcement on matter of drugs, to create the huge federal office of the DEA as we know it today.
The US Ambassador sitting not far from me would later have something to say. The US diplomatic position requires officials to push back against claims such as these, which is perfectly understandable. After the debate, we had a pleasant exchange in which the ambassador offered important insights into how not to alienate the audience when making a speech. I thanked him in agreeing his advice was helpful because my aim is above all to leave the audience feeling that it is safe to disagree. All the while, of course, making space to say the truth.
I learned two things from this: the connection between the policy of War on Drugs and its implementation which results in racism is not clear to everyone. When I quoted Johann Hari, who says the main reason for banning drugs that obsessed the men who launched this war “was that the [B]lacks, Mexicans, and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people,” I was talking about racism. When we look at Michelle Alexander’s research sketching “The New Jim Crow” that is the prohibition, the fact that “black people are about five times more likely to go to prison for drug possession than white people”, and that “since 1970, the U.S. prison population has risen 700%”, I am writing about a reality I cannot even comprehend as an individual being. And yet, millions of people are living this reality. As I do not work on this topic, I would simply like to thank the people who do. Thank you.
Speaking to decision makers about prohibition requires constant practice and being present for your interlocutor. It is a balancing act on bridging a big divide between all you have read, heard, and understood about the effects prohibition on people’s lives, and what they have or have not heard. A simple thought I would like to stress here because it inspires compassion and understanding in me is: “They just do not know what we know.”
Second, our role as young activists in these formal institutions such as the UN is to speak these truths, which sometimes cause discomfort. We need to speak up not only because we have nothing to lose, but also because the “adult” NGOs are required to adhere to established standards in a way that does not alienate or create discomfort in officials in order to preserve the opportunity to be heard. This sometimes results in a “consensus” so watered down as to encompass the whole spectrum of disagreement.
In March this year, 30 young people ready to reform the world drug policy – members and friends of the Paradigma coalition, roamed these UN buildings at the occasion of CND 2019. At the end of our statement, I put up a photo (below) saying “These young people are looking forward to working with you.” This hearing and formal and informal exchanges we have had with the INCB members have left me hopeful that after 70+ years of “protecting the children” rhetoric, the way is finally open for us to speak our truths. We are going to keep coming, and we are going to be heard.
Onward with courage and compassion, friends: We have work to do!
*’I’ form was used in the text so as to recount a personal experience and avoid speaking for others. However, the statement is a result of collective work of members of Paradigma and should be considered as such.