Written by Orsi Fehér, founder and chapter leader of SSDP Österreich (Austria).
For the 20th Anniversary of the Commission on Narcotic Drug’s “flagship publication”, a five-volume report on the “world drug problem” was launched at the Vienna headquarters of the United Nations on 22 June. We were there to witness an awkward assembly of participants. The back row seats were reserved for observers (mostly civil society) and were filled over capacity, while the seats for member states painted a very disappointing picture with less than half of the delegates present. The situation gave space for some well-deserved satirical whispers, but it is, in fact, upsetting that while officially member states support evidence-based policies, they don’t show up at the presentation of the UN’s official collection of said evidence, not even as a diplomatic gesture. Among the states that were present, Russia, the USA, and the UK both asked to speak, but rather than engaging in a conversation, as Pakistan’s rep later wittily pointed out, representatives read prepared statements to assure the UNDOC of their support. A noteworthy statement was presented by Bolivia though, who explicitly called for tighter control in consumption and voiced their disgust towards those who use drugs, followed by Colombia, who stressed the importance of human rights and acknowledged that certain policies have, historically, turned out to be counterproductive in practice. Following the usual formalities of the opening, we heard from UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov and to our delight, the panel included Angela Me, head of the Statistical Commission. Me pointed out (among other important issues, such as the increase of female overdose deaths and NPS regulation issues) the role that Cannabis Regulation played in reshaping the drug landscape across the world. She explained that, although it is still very difficult to accurately account for the consequences of cannabis legalization, it is clearly visible that cannabis use among adolescents has decreased in states that have more permissive cannabis laws. This is an interesting fact to consider when the “protection of children” seems to be the flaming sword many use to justify the current prohibitionist model of drug policy While all speakers stressed the importance of unity and joint efforts in tackling problems, terrorism and organized crime seemed to be a major theme at the event as both the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice as well as the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime spoke on the panel. Ironically, the UN is admitting their failings in fighting against the drug problem by stating that “opium production is up and the cocaine market is thriving”, and by speakers repeatedly talking about how “the proceeds of drug production and trafficking make up almost half of the Taliban’s annual income”. This rhetoric is rather distressing; sure, these illicit cash flows can finance atrocious groups and affect the economy negatively, but to vaguely pinpoint drugs as the root of the problem to justify the very policies that have failed for decades to liquidate the black market and its’ consequent damages is plain humorless. As Chairwoman Bente Angell-Hansen pointed out, the report is failing to address the main actors on the market. It seems that terrorism is a versatile buzzword that can be interfused with any concept to evoke fear and strengthen hostile dispositions. Although the report is a very informative document with an impressive amount of data, the framing of the results do not get any less bias in other topics either. With headlines such as “healthy years lost as a result of drug use”, not only is the rhetoric of the entire publication susceptible, at times it seems that the grouping and distinction of substances is arbitrary, depending on how the infographics can come out more deterrent. The highlight of the panel was the address of Esbjörn Hörnberg, Chairman of the VNGOC, whose entire speech focused on the involvement of the affected population in policy making. He stressed the importance of youth participation in the political process and talked about the need for alternatives of the current punitive and repressive policies that leave young people exposed to risks and “degrading treatment” by official bodies. He called for evidence based policy making that doesn’t let criminal groups benefit as a consequence while leaving the most vulnerable groups exposed to harm. We hope that this intention translates into action in the upcoming events, but for now, as one voice of youth, here are some of my thoughts on why reconsidering prohibitionist drug policies could be a solution to a wide range of problems that the World Drug Report presents: With the rapidly accumulating scientific evidence of therapeutically use of certain drugs, rescheduling would not only open new doors in mental health and addiction treatment, the problem of access to pain medication could be approached from a much more practical angle. Decriminalization could replace the culture of fear around drugs and bring compassion to people who use drugs. If users were not criminalized, the stigmatization against them would slowly fade, and as a result, access to proper health care and appropriate harm reduction measures would be improved. Young people would feel more comfortable asking for help, reaching out to members of their community, or having honest conversations about drugs and safety. Kids would not be afraid to ask questions and they could effectively educate each other. As it could already be seen in the World Drug Report data, adolescents’ access to substances would be easier to control and due to several reasons, underage use is very likely to instantly decrease. Decriminalization would allow for transparency and regulation of financial flows coming from drug related activities, and therefore local growers would have the opportunity to keep their livelihoods, but would not have to rely on criminal groups for income. Not only could decriminalization strip criminal groups of their control of the market (and thus entire geographies and their populace), it could turn those illicit proceeds into taxable revenue. Decriminalization would definitely cause the demand for NPS to decrease. I do not have the illusion that cheaper options to “traditional substances” would not pop their heads up every now and again, but the motivation of avoiding persecution that turns most users to NPS would cease and thus demand could be expected to reduce. And finally, my biggest problem with the World Drug Report is the significantly more detailed information on illicit drug supply rather than the demand for drugs means that policy makers know little about people who use drugs, the demographic most affected by these policies. The EMCDDA reports that disproportionally more drug-law offenses involved only possession, ie. arrests of individuals, than supply. Actually “putting people first”, according to the quasi motto of CND since UNGASS, would be working on destroying the stigma around drug use, so that data collection could become a lot easier and faster. If people felt safer talking about or working with these topics, a better understanding of demand, of the motivation for use and abuse, of experiences of vulnerable demographics would mean better preparedness to handle risks. Ambulance services, medical professionals and even the police would have more freedom and resources to properly deal with drug-related emergencies. So, as both the VNGOC and the UNODC agree that young people are of special importance when it comes to drug polices, we are ready to offer our insights and waiting for them to reach out.