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The central most important outcome of this year’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (from 11 to 19 March in Vienna) is that the pretension of consensus on global drug policy has been shattered. At the end of the "High Level Segment" of this CND (with heads of state and ministers), it was clear that there is a deep rift between the countries that signed the drug treaties.

After months of vainly trying to agree on the subject of Harm Reduction (HR) during the preparation for this CND, on the meeting itself this came to a climax when the majority of countries succeeded in keeping the term HR out of the Political Declaration (PD), and in replacing it by the idiotic wording “related support services”. How serious the situation is was made clear by the decision of almost all European countries to let Germany present a statement at the closing session on 12 March, to the effect that these countries interpret the words “related support services” to mean “Harm Reduction”, the way they have been doing it for many years. This led to a number of statements by Russia, Japan, Pakistan and others who didn’t accept this departure from what they considered consensus. As to the American position, contrary to other observers, I found it reasonable, critical, but not rejecting the German statement.

The rift within the UN drug “control system” is not only about Harm Reduction. Human Rights may prove to be even more contentious. During the last week of CND there was a lot of indignation when Singapore officially defended itself against criticism of violations of human rights, and asserted its position. Singapore claims the right to corporal punishment for drug convicts and even to impose the death penalty. Many organizations objected to this because, according to UN opinion, the death penalty is disproportionate to the crime.

I think it is better to point out that the idea of a uniform global drug policy is an illusion, than to argue about the death penalty. Developments in drug policy that we find necessary (such as regulation of the cannabis market in the Netherlands) should not be dependent on first reaching agreement on a subject that is dominated by deeply different cultural and religious beliefs and convictions.


Some countries think the real drug war still has to start, other countries want to end it. The countries that are committed to Harm Reduction want to continue on this path, but are obstructed in developing their drug policy by countries that prefer to let drug users die, or simply kill them. This makes clear that it is impossible to maintain a uniform global drug policy, and it provides us with a strong argument to get rid of global drug prohibition.

Before the start of the CND it was still unclear whether there would be a new opportunity for a meeting of NGO’s with Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). On the second day of the High Level Segment, on 12 March 2009, a meeting of this sort was announced as an “Open Dialogue”.

In this meeting, I reminded Costa of his announcement of a discussion paper on the availabilty of cannabis and its consumption in the Netherlands, and asked him what happened to that discussion paper. This was filmed by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, HCLU again, this time from far away because suddenly there were new rules.

Costa said that his report on the Netherlands was “quashed”. I didn’t hear this clearly enough, because then, I should have said that there apparently was a difference of opinion with the Dutch government. What I did say was that we need a discussion paper, with sources and references. He simply reiterated that he had answered in his blog and in the press conference, the day before - which was only open for press. I said he was not doing his work properly. At that point, the chair wanted to continue with the next question.

The year of reflection that was supposed to end at this CND, obviously hasn’t been used the way it should have been. Mike Trace, formerly of UNODC and now the central figure of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), foresaw this. In an article for the Guardian, he wrote "we’re about to see the international community walk up the political and diplomatic path of least resistance. It will do nothing to help the millions of people around the world whose lives are destroyed by drug markets and drug use. And the depressing thing about it is that we can all book our seats for 2019, to go through this charade again."

CND 2009 should be the beginning of a year of real reflection. As ENCOD stated before: a moratorium on drug policy must be declared, at least until CND 2010. The pretension that there is consensus on drug policy has proved to be false. Now we need to get rid of the existing global uniform system. I am optimistic, but I am also realistic. I am convinced that we’re winning, and that our opponents are on the defensive. For a very long time, our big challenge was to get the topic of alternatives on the agenda. Right now this is happening, in Latin America, in the Netherlands, in the USA, and many other places.

I think that the definitive blow to prohibition will be dealt in the USA. Not in Europe. It is a pity, but we’ll have to accept that. There is a salient change in public opinion on drug policy in a number of countries, and especially in the USA. The best things that happened in the last weeks were the article by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron and the video interview with him on CNN. When the USA discontinues drug prohibition, many countries will quickly and gladly follow suit, Miron said.

Our job is to simply keep the pressure on politicians and continue to do what we have been doing for many years. There is a stream of development now that cannot be stopped anymore. I want to end with a mail that Chris Conrad sent to his friends on 12 March:

Morales chews Coca leaf at UN anti-drug conference

I was so proud to be in the room yesterday when Bolivian President Morales defied the UN anti-drug convention and chewed a coca leaf in front of the UN conference. A roar of applause greeted his action as he told the UN that coca is part and parcel of the culture of Bolivia; we can prevent trafficking, he told the conferees, but we cannot do away with coca leaf and coca chewing. I hope for the day when I will see someone do something similar with a cannabis cigarette... I felt like this is really history in the making; the unravelling of the Drug War. Protestors on the outside, Morales on the inside and confusion as to what the US policies will be, plus many statements that the policy will need to be reviewed again soon and should not stand for 10 years, after all. Viva. (Chris Conrad )

By Fredrick Polak (with the help of Peter Webster)

(Fredrick Polaks accreditation to the UN meeting was made possible by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network)

  • LA FIN DE LA POLITIQUE UNIVERSELLE DES DROGUES, un rapport de notre présence à la réunion de la Commission des Stupefiants de l'ONU a Vienne, debut de mars.
Update Monday 27 April 2009 00:21, published Monday 6 April 2009 15:27

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