Vienna Consensus on Drug Policy Cracks

07 April 2009

A clear divide in drug control approaches became apparent at the end of the High Level Segment of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) on March 11-12 in Vienna, where countries gathered to review to progress since the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) and set a framework for the next 10 years through a Political Declaration and Plan of Action.

At one side of the divide a growing number of countries opt for pragmatic evidence-based harm reduction policies, while at the other side countries desperately cling to a zero tolerance approach that has failed to produce any significant result the past decade. Despite the diplomatic façade, the conclusion cannot be otherwise that the Vienna consensus on drug control that has paralysed progress in international drug control for decades, has fallen apart. 

"Let me chew my coca leaves"

The first day of the High Level Segment was marked by the announcement of President Evo Morales of Bolivia that he would start the process to remove the coca leaf from the 1961 Single Convention as well as the suspension of the paragraphs of that convention that prohibit the traditional chewing of coca leaf. Holding up a coca leaf in front of delegates at the UN summit on drugs he underlined his demand. The speech of Morales overshadowed the bland statements of Executive Director of the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, who tried to show the success of the UN drug control system while there is actually very little, if anything, to show for.

At a protest organised by the human rights and harm reduction organisations, activists carrying placards which read "The war on drugs destroys lives" and "Drug law isolates" greeted delegates as they arrived at the summit. Fake $1,000 bank notes with Mr Costa's picture under the inscription, "The United Nations of Prohibition" were also handed out.

Inside, the Executive Director of the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, desperately tried to construct 'evidence' to show that the drug problem is contained, however, a report commissioned by the European Commission for the occasion found "no evidence that the global drug problem has been reduced during the period from 1998 to 2007" – the primary target of the 1998 UNGASS, aimed to significantly reduce the global illicit drugs problem by 2008 through international cooperation and measures in the field of drug supply and drug demand reduction.

"Broadly speaking the situation has improved a little in some of the richer countries," the EC report said, "while for others it worsened, and for some of those it worsened sharply and substantially, among which are a few large developing or transitional countries. In other words, the world drugs problem seems to be more or less in the same state as in 1998: if anything, the situation has become more complex: prices for drugs in most Western countries have fallen since 1998 by as much as 10% to 30%, despite tougher sentencing of the sellers of cocaine and heroin in some of these markets. At the same time, there is no evidence that drugs have become more difficult to obtain." Given the limitations of the data, "a fair judgment is that the problem became somewhat more severe."

No reason for complacency one would say. However, the new Political Declaration* opted to simply reaffirm the commitments of the 1998 UNGASS – repeating illusionary pledges for a 'society free of drug abuse' and, again, to establish a 10-year target date to eliminate or reduce significantly the illicit cultivation of opium poppy, coca bush and cannabis plant. That did not happen the past decade, and it will not happen in the next one. The EC report gives ample evidence that the negative health and social consequences of current drug policies exceed the positive ones. However, the Political Declaration and the Plan of Action* essentially chose to ignore that reality.

The 'zero tolerance' approach prevailed, due to the pressure of the US, the Russian Federation, Colombia, Pakistan and Japan in particular. The new Political Declaration and Plan of Action were endorsed by all countries. However, it became clear from the national statements at the High Level Segment that some countries did acknowledge the shortcomings of past and future drug policies – and called for new approaches. Unfortunately, they had lost the battle at the negotiating table the preceding months – and the rules of diplomacy ban the outright disagreement to be reflected in the final documents.


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The disappointment of many countries was perhaps best articulated by the head of the German delegation, Ambassador Rüdiger Lüdeking, in his national statement. He openly criticised the complacency of the review process: "The goals and targets set out by UNGASS 98 have not been met," he said. "Consumption of illicit drugs and psychotropic substances has not been significantly reduced. In many parts of the world, it has even considerably increased. The same applies for the cultivation and supply of illicit drugs which have not decreased globally either in spite of all efforts."

"We would have liked to see also some new principles reflected in this Draft Declaration”, he continued. "I think in particular of the principle of system-wide coherence, the principle of proportionality and the principle of evidence based policy in all fields of counter-narcotic policy. In our view, the new Draft Political Declaration could and should have been more future-oriented and more courageous than it is now."

Brazil said that the aim of a world free of drugs has proven to be unattainable and in fact has led to unintended consequences such as the enlargement of the imprisoned population due to drug related crimes, increase in violence related to illegal drug market, increase in homicides and violence among the young population and social exclusion due to drug use. They stressed the need for recognition of and moving towards harm reduction strategies and securing the human rights of drug users.

The European Union also said that the UNGASS review and the period of reflection "have clearly shown that the aims and objectives as set out in the existing UN declarations, action plans, and measures related to the world drug problem were ambitious and that the goals have not been achieved, either in terms of any measurable reduction or by any proven containment of the use of any illegal drug globally within the last 10 years."

Harm reduction

An important finding of the EC report is the fact that "harm reduction policies, still controversial in some countries, are gaining ground in a growing number of others countries which see them as an effective way of reducing drug-related disease, social disorder, and mortality." Research has shown that there is good evidence for the effectiveness of harm reduction measures and it is supported by the General Assembly of the United Nations, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the High Commissioner on Human Rights, and the heads of UNAIDS and of the Global Fund on AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM) as well as many other international bodies as an integral and essential element of comprehensive drug demand reduction policies and an indispensable component of HIV/AIDS prevention strategies amongst injecting drug users.

The term harm reduction was the focus of intense debate during the negotiations in Vienna. Some governments, notably Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and others, did try hard the past six months to explicitly insert harm reduction in the declaration for the first time, but were blocked by the US, Russia and Japan in particular. Again, the German ambassador, voiced the disappointment: "Taking stock leaves us with but one conclusion: more of the same is not enough if we want to continue to pursue the ambitious objectives that we set for ourselves in 1998. We need to seriously consider ways and means to render our policies more effective. We need to add new instruments to our toolbox. In this regard there has been one positive development during the last decade that has proven to be effective: the new harm reduction approach."

"To be frank, the Draft Political Declaration does not fully satisfy us," he said. "We regret very much that it does not explicitly mention the term 'harm reduction'. But we think that the essence of this approach is covered by what the Draft Political Declaration calls 'related support services'."

The EU reminded the world community that "over 80 UN Member States from all regions of the world have introduced such measures. There is no evidence that they would facilitate drug use or increase the number of drug users in communities." It continued to say that the EU considered harm reduction to be "of wider importance since they protect not only drug users but also society as a whole. It is an EU drug policy principle that harm reduction cannot replace prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation – and cannot be replaced by them."

The United Kingdom said that "we would like to have seen a bolder document. I could cite a number of examples, but will cite one. Paragraph 20 refers to the link between drug misuse and HIV/AIDS. A key technique in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS is known as harm reduction – used in the sense of the provision of clean injecting equipment to persons who are addicted to injecting drugs. Yet those words appear nowhere in the paragraph or anywhere else in the document. This is obviously at variance with other UN communications on the subject of HIV/AIDS – including those related to the UN Millennium Goals that are mentioned in this declaration itself. This sends confusing and damaging messages to Governments and agencies seeking to grapple with this disastrous epidemic."

The Dutch also joined the chorus of opposition: "The scientific debate on whether harm reduction is actually effective is now at an end. We have shown that it is. Unfortunately, however, the political debate continues. Given the aim of achieving 'system-wide coherence' between UN organizations, I find it regrettable that, although WHO and the UNAIDS partners have fully embraced harm reduction, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs still seems to consider it 'a bridge too far'. In a sense, this detracts from the work of all those dedicated professionals who devote their time and energy to tackling the real drug-related problems of real people."

"I cannot help but notice that the political declaration now under consideration shows some remarkable similarities to that of 1998, eleven years ago," the Dutch delegate said. "In fact, they are virtually interchangeable. If we look at these declarations alone, it would seem that there has been absolutely no progress in the meantime. Of course, that is not the case. As I have already stated, there has been progress in both the quality and quantity of demand reduction and, more especially, harm reduction efforts." She urged those who do want to move on to more effective and humane policies to carry on. "I earnestly hope that the member states, international organizations and NGOs will continue to develop and implement evidence-based demand reduction measures, and will continue to do so with the flexibility and creativity they have shown thus far."

Storm in a teacup?

At the end of the meeting Germany intervened to issue an "interpretative statement" in which they stated that "they will interpret the term 'related support services' used in the Political Declaration and the Plan of Action as including measures which a number of States, International Organizations and Non Governmental Organizations call 'harm reduction measures'." The statement was supported by 26 countries, mostly European, but including Australia and Bolivia.**

The German intervention received a sustained round of applause and furious negative reactions by Russia, Colombia, Cuba, Sri Lanka and Japan. The US also did not support Germany's intervention. It still refuses to endorse the term harm reduction, because it is interpreted by some to include practices that the US does not wish to endorse or see included neither in the Political Declaration nor in the Plan of Action. However, in the national statement, the US supported needle-exchange programs to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS among injection drug users – a key strategy in the harm reduction concept.

Although, not all counties joined the 'interpretative statement', a significant number had made it already perfectly clear in their national statements that they had serious reservations about the Political Declaration. Brazil stressed the need for recognition of and moving towards harm reduction strategies and securing the human rights of drug users, as well as Argentina, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, New Zealand, and Uruguay. India was cautious, but acknowledged that the harm reduction approach could be "in accordance with the value system of the people by the governments concerned. We need to respect the value systems of different countries and policy makers need to take informed, evidence based, decisions."

The notion that consensus functioning of the CND remains intact on all issues is now clearly little more than an illusion. Disagreement on the issue of harm reduction is certainly not, as Costa stated in his closing speech, little more than a storm in a teacup. Despite the diplomatic façade, the conclusion cannot be otherwise that the Vienna consensus on drug control has cracked.

See also: Recent publications IDPC on the 2009 CND

* The final version is not available. This draft is dated March 10, 2009.
** The statement was endorsed by the following states: Australia, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saint Lucia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009