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Dispatch from Vienna, Day Three: A Global Consensus for Drug Policy Reform

Graham Boyd,
Drug Law Reform Project
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July 10, 2008

The first-ever meeting of ordinary people, representing the entire globe and discussing the state of the world’s drug policy, concluded today in Vienna with a unanimous, united call for a new approach to drug control policy. Here are the highlights of our resolution:

  • We recognized “the human rights abuses against people who use drugs”
  • We called for “evidence-based” drug policy focused on “mitigation of short-term and long-term harms” and “full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”
  • We called on the U.N. to report on the collateral consequences of the current criminal justice-based approach to drugs and to provide an “analysis of the unintended consequences of the drug control system”
  • We called for comprehensive “reviews of the application of criminal sanctions as a drug control measure”
  • We recognized harm reduction as a necessary and worthwhile response to drug abuse (harm reduction is a set of practical strategies that reduce negative consequences of drug use, incorporating a spectrum of strategies from safer use, to managed use to abstinence; harm reduction strategies meet drug users “where they’re at,” addressing conditions of use along with the use itself)
  • We called for a shift in primary emphasis from interdiction to treatment and prevention
  • We called for alternatives to incarceration
  • We called for the provision of development aid to farmers before eradication of coca or opium crops

In other words, we voiced the need for a very significant shift in direction for drug policy at just about every level.

Of course, if the national governments decide to ignore this call from the grassroots, this could just be a grown-up version of the model U.N. club some of us did in high school.

If you read my earlier blog posts , you’ll know about the mysterious woman with the yellow badge — she worked hard to wreck the first day, but once she was gone on the second day, the more hard-line U.S. groups became fairly pragmatic and sensible. But the mystery woman showed up again today.

I decided to introduce myself to the woman with the yellow badge. Today, she had a red badge, like the rest of us — meaning that overnight she had become a delegate, not an observer. Scary thought for how the day might go. I offered her my card, and got hers. I asked that she, as an official U.S. representative, please include the ACLU in future delegations. It turns out that June Sivilli is indeed in the drug czar’s office. A quick Google search reveals that she’s a big proponent of student drug testing, which may explain why she already knew who I was (thanks to the ACLU’s heretical position that, because it’s invasive and ineffective, we shouldn’t drug test students.) She didn’t offer to include me in future delegations, but was entirely civil.

And then the day started with a bang: obstruction and delay from Drug Free America’s Calvina Fay and a couple of her colleagues. What was interesting, though, was that many of her original allies were no longer going along with her tactics. Joined only by the “Drug Free Schools Coalition” and a group called Sundial , she renewed the call to remove any suggestion that current drug policies cause harm. Sivilli seemed to be at work again, mobilizing her dwindling troops. Things quickly became comical: one delegate made a motion for all official government employees (i.e., Sivilli) to reveal themselves. The chair denied the motion, but the point had been made. Then another delegate asked the chair why the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (love the name!) was no longer filming the meeting. A rumor had spread that Sivilli objected to being caught on camera whispering in the ears of the “drug-free” representatives. And I learned from one colleague that the Drug Free Schools Coalition representative had threatened to sue her for taking his picture and “reported” her to the U.N. (whatever that means), forcing her to erase the picture from her camera. Can anyone think of any other examples of the U.S. government these days trying to do its dirty work with no accountability or scrutiny, especially in the face of overwhelming opposition from ordinary people? (Yes, Drug Free Schools Coalition and Drug Free America are not actually the U.S. government, but they clearly were working hand-in-glove in the one space where the U.S. government representative could not speak for herself.)

But I’m spending way too much time on the shenanigans and not enough on the tremendous promise that today brings. For almost half a century, world drug policy has focused overwhelmingly on “supply side” tactics — a euphemism for policies based on arrests and imprisonment. The U.S. has largely driven this process, in our name but without our consent and mostly without even our awareness. Other governments were initially dragged into this regime, and many have come to embrace it enthusiastically and viciously. Yet now, in this very official space, the people of the world have responded, and we say with one voice that things must change.

I’ll write one more time with some thoughts about how we can make sure our government listens. And I hope you’ll all chime in with your ideas in the comments section. One more thing: thanks for taking the time to read this far. I hope it’s been useful and maybe even a little bit fun.

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