What I learned at Summer School-Part 1

What I learned at Summer School-Part 1

The summer has been flying by with the International AID’s conference, the Caravan for Peace and my participation last month in a two-week course presented by the Open Society Foundation supported Central European University on Human Rights and Drug Policy in Budapest, Hungary. The goal of the course is to “situate drug policies globally within a framework of fundamental human rights, and to assess the extent to which country and international drug policies fail to meet human rights standards.” Clearly this is a lofty goal, but we got started right away and began looking at the intersection between human rights and drug policy.

Our course in the first week were packed with prominent speakers, including Polish human rights author and professor Wiktor Osiatynski, international drug law expert, David Bewley-Taylor, Harm Reduction International’s Damon Barrett, Director of OSF’s Global Drug Policy program, Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, and Péter Sárosi and Balázs Dénes from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. While I wish you all could have been there to learn alongside me, I will try to summarize some of the discussions and key points from this two-week journey.

Rights: We began the first day with an overview of human rights and the relationship between rights and policy.  As Wiktor explained, rights are actually the limits to policy.  Rights are what policies should recognize and promote—and try not to violate.  Imagine a world without rights—people wouldn’t be able to expect from each other, we wouldn’t know the limits and boundaries (of civil liberties) and there would be nothing keeping us from harming others.  Wiktor clarified that no one can waive universal human rights, but the work is to enforce those rights and ensure they are not violated.

International Drug Control Regime: The next day, we went deep into understanding the international drug control system with David Bewley-Taylor and learned about the United Nations Conventions essentially restrict the capacity of any nation to formulate its own drug policy (beyond medicinal uses for substances).  We had extensive discussions about how the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) might be reformed or how different nations have challenged the current control regime. Bolivia is the most recent example with their reservation regarding traditional coca chewing.  Recognizing the limits within which we are working is always helpful because then you can figure out the potential loopholes.  It will be interesting to see how the United States addresses the UN if any of the US (Colorado, Washington State and Oregon) marijuana legalization efforts come to fruition.

Metrics of Success in the Drug War: The UNODC has continuously used metrics of success that inherently violate human rights, such as their campaign to detain drug traffickers in countries such as Iran.  We don’t have any follow-up on what happens to these drug traffickers and often they are tortured, detained without trial or sentenced to death—all of which are against our universal human rights.  In Mexico, the government has often cited increased violence as a metric of success because it means that organized crime is in chaos and thus the government campaign against them is succeeding, however to the victims of this violence, none of this isseen as success.  What would this “war” look like if we used metrics around public health, civil society participation and resources spent on education and harm reduction?

A Right to Use Drugs? Damon Barrett from Harm Reduction International posed this question to us at the start of his session and the class debated whether there is a human right to use drugs using an article by Alex Stevens to guide us..  We discussed what that entails, the responsibility of the state and whether it might be more effective to link the right to use drugs to a different universal human right—right to privacy, leisure time etc.  According to our group discussion, if you argue that there is a right to use drugs, the state has an obligation to provide those substances, through a healthy, regulated system.  However, you could also argue that there is no right, but that there is an obligation by the state to create equal access.  Damon then walked us through the United Nations Human Rights system, which is both complex and obtuse. The main take-away from this (amazing) session was that most of the time, human rights and drug policy are in direct conflict.  What we consider a metric for success within the drug control regime is usually a red flag to the human rights community.  If they detain 61 drug traffickers in Iran, that is a success for UNODC, but there is no follow-up to see how they are treated in detention, whether they are given a trial or if in the end, they are sentenced to the death penalty.  All these “results” are clearly in violation of their human rights.

Harm reduction saves lives: While most people in the course were fully on-board with harm reduction principles and strategies as a means to mitigate the negative impacts of current drug policy, our session with Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch took it to the next level. She clearly laid out how HIV infection becomes a growing epidemic in the short time it is introduced to injection drug using communities (for example from 1% in 1998 to 61% in 1989 in Chiang Rai, Thailand)!  We discussed the need to implement treatment programs that provide comprehensive care through needle exchange programs, opiate substitution treatment and decreasing the HIV viral load through antiretroviral drugs.  Our future policies must integrate treatment and prevention.  A phrase that stuck with me was that while some people make excuses for not using a condom to prevent HIV infection, there is no such excuse regarding needle exchanges.  People want to use clean needles and it is up to us to pressure governments to ensure they are accessible.

It is impossible to fit all we learned into a blog post, but those are the main highlights from the first days. Next week, I will post on the second half of the course.  As always, if you have any questions, just let me know and may the learning be life-long!