The UN and the Drugs problem

Contributed by Nick Wallis

The UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem recently finished.  UNGASS had been reported optimistically as a potential opportunity to shift the global treaties on drug prohibition toward more pragmatic and progressive ends.

Some countries are taking a more progressive angle to drug regulation. Uruguay, Portugal and many central and south American countries understand that prohibition is a dangerous policy that creates one of the biggest markets in the world, which is often run by the corrupt and criminal. But others like Russia, China and Indonesia are holding on strongly to prohibition. Indonesia spoke on behalf of 11 countries, presenting a case for keeping the death penalty for drug crimes.

The slow moving and status-quo upholding UN diplomatic process did not deliver the sort of results some had hoped for. The outcome document largely reflected the policy position the UN has had for several decades, although at least rhetorically there is no longer a call for a, ‘Drug Free World’.

Unfortunately, the debate over drugs is still steeped in a fundamental difference in philosophical approaches to difficult social problems. Drugs pose a unique set of problems, as one of the most common understandings of drug use is that they ‘enslave’ people physiologically, thus affecting the will of the person and their moral capacity in a complex social world.

There are desperate pleas from family members calling on governments to do something to save their child/sibling/parent who they see as enslaved (addicted) to the latest drug craze, whether it is one of the traditional drugs like methamphetamine or one of the new drugs, like the so-called ‘legal highs’. Some grieving parents turn their children to martyrs and build anti-drug campaigns focused on strategies that experts have shown to be frivolous at best and detrimental at worst. Anti-drug organisations with predominantly religious leadership lobby governments to continue the morally bankrupt war on drugs.

This perception of drugs is not reflected in the research on drugs and the people who use them. Nearly every week there is another editorial published in newspapers across Australia from a prominent expert in drug issues, calling for a re-think in how Australia deals with drugs. More and more drug users are standing up and asking for their voices to be included in policy making that directly affects their lives, saying “Nothing about us without us!”

Researchers are pointing out that stigma and punitive policies make people’s lives worse and don’t solve the problems associated with substance abuse.

This is the often hidden story at the heart of most drug issues. Most people who use drugs don’t have a substance use problem, just like most people who drink aren’t alcoholics and most people who gamble aren’t addicted to gambling. While policy makers battle to control the poorly defined problem of the ‘scourge of drugs’, real people’s lives are ruined by a punitive system that expects compliance to it through force and punishment. All of this is done because we need to ‘send the right message’ on drugs, so that other people won’t use them.

Here’s a strategy that clearly doesn’t work, because more people take a wider variety of drugs than ever before. Yet every death at a music festival, every death in a home, every person struggling with substance abuse and every tale that can be spun to show how drugs enslaved someone and made them go mad is held up by the authorities as an example of why we need to continue the regime that directly lead to those things happening.  UNGASS did not produce positive results.

The conversation around drugs needs to shift to be more inclusive of the direct people policies target (drug users, their family and peers) and the experts who seek to understand this complex area. Victoria will be holding an Inquiry into Illicit and Synthetic Drugs and Prescription Medication. This wide ranging inquiry will be looking into how Victoria currently approaches drug policy and what it could be doing better and is expected to report back in March 2017.

During a national cross-party summit on drugs, The Canberra Declaration on illicit drugs was signed and made clear that there is broad and growing support for a different approach to drug policy. Victoria’s inquiry paves the way for state-level discussions.

For the moment, drugs remain a hotly contested and highly emotive issue. This is largely driven by some unfortunately, consistent fear-based and ill-informed mainstream media reporting and a small number of loud voices who continue to push their agenda for prohibition.

But there has been significant rhetorical change, with the legalisation of medical cannabis and some more open public debates about the role of harm reduction policies and practices, such as Needle and Syringe Programs (NSP), safe injecting centres, pill testing and the cessation of sniffer dog programs. The dance between reformer and prohibitionist continues.



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