12/17/17 Rick Lines

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

This week we speak with Rick Lines, Executive Director of Harm Reduction International, about human rights, the drug war, and his new book "Drug Control and Human Rights in International Law."

Share on Facebook Share on stumbleupon digg it Share on reddit Share on del.icio.us



DECEMBER 17, 2017


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Rick Lines is the executive director of Harm Reduction International. Rick has been working in HIV and harm reduction services, policy, and advocacy since the early 1990s. He is known for his leading work in the areas of HIV and prisons, prison needle slash syringe programs, and human rights and the death penalty for drug offenses.

His first book, Drug Control and Human Rights in International Law, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. It is a tremendous honor to have Rick as a guest on Century this week. The first question of course that I had for Rick was to simply tell us more about Harm Reduction International, and how that organization got started, and some, just some basic background.

RICK LINES: We engage primarily at the international level, doing research, policy analysis, and advocacy, and also act as a bit of a catalyst to help coordinate joint campaigning and advocacy with our harm reduction partners working at international, national, and regional level around the world to try to promote further adoption of harm reduction practices, and trying to promote approaches to drug laws and drug policies that respect, protect, and fulfill human rights.

DOUG MCVAY: And I, as I said, you have a new book out, it is relatively new, it's from Cambridge University Press, and before I ask you about that, you are currently, if I'm reading your twitter correctly you're currently in Geneva at the 41st UNAIDS Program Coordinating Board meeting?

RICK LINES: I'm not personally, but several members of my team are there, so, Harm Reduction International is very definitely present and involved at that meeting, but not me this time, I'm in London today.

DOUG MCVAY: All right. Well, what's going on over there in Geneva?

RICK LINES: Well, the Program Coordinating Board is the, essentially the board of directors of UNAIDS, which is the joint United Nations program on addressing HIV.

And the Program Coordinating Board meets a couple of times a year to help shape the direction of what UNAIDS is doing, also receive feedback and input from various member states, from the NGO delegation, which is quite strong there, from people living with HIV and AIDS who are part of that delegation, and of course we attend on a regular basis to make sure that harm reduction and issues of HIV and injecting drug use remain on the agenda of UNAIDS and other UN agencies, and don't get -- don't get sort of lost in the discussions that happen. So, we're there this week to continue to fly the flag of harm reduction.

DOUG MCVAY: Fantastic. Now, that's the, the sort of silo approach that the UN has for some of these, and these sort of cross-cutting issues that, that need those silos taking down. UNODC, we have the drug control regime, that, you know, and yet, human rights is a separate element. The -- balancing human rights and drug control seems to be an ongoing struggle internationally. What should a good balance between drug control and human rights look like?

RICK LINES: Well, first and foremost, we should never have any drug control interventions that violate human rights, full stop. Unfortunately, what we've seen, up until really recently, is that, you know, discussions and development of drug laws and drug policies have never really taken into account human rights.

And, at the same time, human rights organizations and human rights bodies within international organizations such as the UN have typically shied away from examining issues of drugs. I mean, a lot of it just has to go to this siloing kind of reality that you've talked about, where different organizations focus on a very limited way on their mandates, and not outside of that.

Part of it speaks to just the degree to which drugs have been completely stigmatized and criminalized and securitized over the last number of decades, to the degree that, you know, drug control wasn't even seen as having any human rights relevance, it was strictly, you know, about law enforcement and fighting bad drug traffickers, and trying to rescue people who use drugs.

And that, thankfully, something that's begun to shift over the last ten years or so, primarily driven by civil society and NGOs, ours amongst a, you know a group of them, focusing on those issues. It's been raised by certainly the voices of people who use drugs and the networks that represent them, also some of the organizations working in producer countries, looking at the issues of peasant farmers and growers.

The work that we've really pioneered on the issue of the death penalty for drugs, looking at abusive law enforcement in the context primarily of drug trafficking. All of these things, again primarily being led by civil society, but with some very important assistance and support along the way from key human rights leaders and human rights bodies, have begun to shift that mechanism -- sorry to shift that discourse.

Certainly the UN Office on Drugs and Crime is much more open to that sort of discourse now than they were ten years ago. Moving from the rhetoric to the operationalization of course is a different -- a different thing altogether. We seem many, many more human rights bodies taking on drug control issues, we see drug issues having a much higher prominence within a lot of the major human rights NGOs.

So certainly human rights and drug control, the nexus between those is certainly something that's much, much more prominent now than it was ten years ago, when I began sort of the work that ended up in that book. But still, there's still a large gap in implementation in many ways.

The last couple of years we've seen the situation in a number of key countries, from, you know, sort of, the Philippines to Indonesia to the United States sort of going backwards. So these, these situations are far from resolved. But certainly, the human rights impacts of drug enforcement and drug control is something that's much more on the agenda now, so at least there is room to start pushing on some of those things.

DOUG MCVAY: As I recall from, of course, the CND meetings are webcast live, only webcast live, they don't keep those in an archive. It's really sad. But on some of these, I've seen among -- the Russian delegate, I believe, I've -- forgive me if I'm getting it wrong, but I seem to recall hearing the Russian delegate, and possibly a couple of others, say that the basic human right is to be living in a world that's free from all drugs. Or possibly it was our Attorney General. I get them mixed up sometimes.

RICK LINES: Those definitely aren't mutually exclusive, that is actually something you hear from a variety of places, really in response to the success and the traction that, you know, our sector has had in beginning to highlight human rights and drug control issues. That has been one of the standard pushbacks we've seen from some member states, from kind of the, you know, the zero tolerance and abstinence-based NGO sector.

And also even from the International Narcotics Control Board on more than one occasion, sort of creating this right to be drug free as the kind of, I guess, opposite to looking at drug control policies that promote the right to health, and, you know, prohibit torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, you know, protect and promote the rights of women and young people, et cetera, or don't violate those rights.

So, you're not alone to being confused where you might have heard that, because it's likely you heard it more than one place.

DOUG MCVAY: The -- I think that as far as drug policy reformers, we've gotten better, I think, and more effective, because we have been bridging the gap between policy advocacy and the people who use drugs, advocating for actual -- actually people who use drugs, rather than seeing them as others. It strikes me that it's easy to violate the rights of some -- of an other. It's easy to abuse an other. It's difficult if you think of them as a person, you know, someone who's in your community, and -- am I -- drug users, the organizing of people who use drugs. That's something that's been accelerating in the past few years, am I -- or am I just noticing it more?

RICK LINES: No, absolutely, it's something that's definitely been accelerating, again, over the last ten years. And I've always said to my colleagues who do that work that I think, you know, the presence of organized groups of people who use drugs at these various national, and international, and regional policy making meetings are not just critical in the sense of having the voices of affected populations at the table.

I think they're actually critical for exposing, kind of, the fallacy at the base of so much prohibitionist drug law, which is essentially that people who use drugs are not capable of autonomous decision making, people who use drugs are chemical slaves, the kind of language we hear that, somehow, they're, you know, helpless victims of their drug addiction.

So, having, you know, articulate, intelligent, strategically minded organizations of people who use drugs around the table actually exposes, kind of, the whole fallacy of that kind of rationale for policy making. You know, the fact that you can actually be a person who uses drugs and take part, you know, at a very high level meeting, you know, be very engaged, you know, very aware of the issues going on, be able to comment at a high level on policy, being networked in internationally with your partner organizations, again just exposes the lie about, you know, that really underpins so much of punitive drug control.

DOUG MCVAY: Some of the things that are going on in the US, we're finding that, well, and all over the world, harm reduction advocates have often found that it's necessary to bend the rules somewhat, or even just break the bloody law, where it's necessary. Things like syringe exchange, in our country syringe exchange is tolerated at -- at all levels, really, but not really legal on many levels, depending on the jurisdiction.

Safe consumption services, safe consumption sites, a number of cities around the US are talking about setting up a safe consumption site. It's absolutely going to be against the law to do it now, but there are some folks doing that now. How much of the advance that's been made has been in spite of the law, rather than because of it?

RICK LINES: Oh, I think a significant amount. I think if we look at, you know, the development of harm reduction, in many, many, many countries, you know, the start of harm reduction was community based activism, in a lot of places. You know, whether that's people who use drugs, or people who are doing broader kind of HIV or street health services, beginning to take it upon themselves to distribute syringes, as you say, or just set up safe places for people to inject indoors, so they don't have to inject in back alleys or in parks and increase the risk of overdose.

You know, begin to provide access to overdose reversal medications, often before those are actually generally available or licensed. I mean, that's part and parcel of a lot of the HIV activist movement generally. We've seen that in sort of treatment activism, where, you know, people bringing medication from one country to another, in -- at different stages in time in the HIV response.

So there's always been that burning sort of righteous cause within the HIV movement generally, and the harm reduction movement, about, you know, we will not let, you know, bad laws and abusive laws get in the way of our efforts to save lives.

And, you know, people have been obviously persecuted and prosecuted for that in many countries in the past. I know that continues to go on in the United States at the state level in some places where syringe exchange workers can be charged with various offenses.

But, in many places, we see that that activism has been incredibly important in creating that political space that actually results in changing laws. So, I mean, that sense of community spirit, that sense of activism, and, you know, and not being willing to just be constrained by what are really, you know, ridiculous laws in the face of massive public health problems, and, you know, the deaths of thousands of people.

I think that's one of the real, I mean, again, righteous elements of the whole HIV and harm reduction movement, and something we should all be proud of.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, of course, in this, here in the US, where I live, we're looking at the possibility of turning the clock back, I mean, the, you know, opioid commission, yay, we're going to do something. Everything's law enforcement. Oh. It looks like we're going -- basically, a question of not having learned lessons of the past. What kind of advice would you have for policy makers here in the US?

RICK LINES: Well, I think the point you've made is really at, you know, kind of at the heart of what I look at, or the challenge at the heart of, you know, the book that I wrote, which is the fact that, you know, drug control, you know, as a cause, or as a logic, or as a body of law, certainly, is one -- an ideology that justifies and centralizes the authority of the state, essentially.

Whereas human rights, obviously, is a body of law, and a philosophy, that seeks to minimize the encroachment of the state into the lives of people and into the lives of communities. So there's a fundamental conflict, you would say, between, you know, the one body of laws that justifies and extends state control, and one that seeks to push it back.

And I think that's not surprising that we're seeing what we're seeing in the United States at the moment, given the current administration and the current administration's obsession with control. Of course, in the United States, we see very clearly the impacts of that control and the racialized impacts of that abusive form of drug control, which is an important thing to emphasize when we talk about, you know, human rights and drug control issues.

We very, you know, correctly I think, look at the abuses against people who use drugs, the abuses against people in prison for drug offenses, the people -- peasant farmers who are cultivating coca for example, or opium in different parts of the world, but the reality is, I think, in most countries in the world, the people who are most -- people who are affected by drug laws are disproportionately people who don't use drugs.

Again, the United States is a good example of this. When we look at, you know, the incredibly, you know, authoritarian and militarized policing that we see in communities of color and poor communities across the United States, that's, you know, abusive powers that affect everyone living in that community, regardless of whether they have any relationship to the drug market.

And that's where, again, when we get back to that question of drug control as a way of legitimizing state power, and the authoritarian tendencies of the state. So, again, that is really a central element that makes it difficult to have some of these discussions because, certainly from a harm reduction perspective we always have to focus on, you know, the public health successes of harm reduction, and how harm reduction saves lives, how harm reduction, you know, saves the state money by preventing disease, and, you know, saves the lives of people who might otherwise be vulnerable.

But at the same time, when you start to scratch too far, you get into these questions of the state having to surrender a certain degree of power which they've enjoyed over the years, certainly enjoyed through the advances in the drug control regime, and the militarizing of that regime at national level in many countries. So, you know, harm reduction very quickly runs up against, you know, that security mindset in many countries.

And while it's incredibly important to argue that public health rationales and evidence in that regard, when you get to kind of broader questions of enforcement and change of laws, we obviously have a much different kind of hill to climb.

DOUG MCVAY: You are listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

My guest this week is Rick Lines, he is the executive director of Harm Reduction International, and the author of Drug Control And Human Rights In International Law, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. Let's get back to that interview.

Tell me about your book, Drug Control And Human Rights In International Law. It was released by Cambridge University Press a couple of months ago. Law book -- law school text, what -- talk to me about your book.

RICK LINES: Yeah, I would say it's definitely sort of a scholarly book in tone, but I hope that, hopefully, it's not inaccessible. I try not to write anything I do in a way that's inaccessible.

So while it's not necessarily an academically toned book, I would say it certainly is a book that would appeal to people who work in our sector. It's not a -- it's not a piece of popular literature that someone who had no interest in drug control is going to pick up as their first entry point into discussions of drugs and harm reduction. It is an international legal text in that regard.

I mean, the basic question it looks at is, how do you resolve conflicts between international drug control law and international human rights law? I think the frustration that I had, that led to the book, is sort of something you articulated, about this right to be drug free, or right to live in a drug free society, it's -- you know, the number of times you see governments defending abusive drug policies.

I sort of got into it through the death penalty, which is one of the main issues that I've been working on for the last ten or 12 years, the death penalty for drug offenses. You see governments justifying abusive drug policies, whether that's the death penalty, whether that's mass incarceration, you know, whether that's random urine testing, you know, all these sorts of intrusive technologies, are justified on the grounds that, well, we are doing this to fulfill our obligations in international law around drug control.

And I just said, well, that's just a nonsense. So we need to actually look at a way, and try to come up with a framework whereby we can sort of pick apart that rationale, and not let that rationale stand.

Basically, what I do in my book is examine, through a number of case studies, one of them being the death penalty, one being harm reduction, one being traditional uses of coca, which are sort of the three main issues that tend to come up time and time again in the international debates, look at what a human rights based approach at national level would look like, what happens when you run into conflicts between the law, and are these actually conflicts in law.

Because many times, they're not. I mean, the question of the death penalty for drugs is not a conflict of law, in the traditional sense. Like, there's nothing in international drug control law that says states must execute drug traffickers. That's, you know, what it is, it's a state using kind of the ideological -- the ideology and rationale of punitive drug control as a way to justify their policy.

So, I really just sort of try to tease out some of those ideas, and look at a framework, or creating a framework for interpretation of the treaties that could be used in national courts, for example, or by parliamentarians or congresspeople to balance their international commitments in both regimes, in a way that always protects and promotes human rights first and foremost.

So, I mean, the book in itself is sort of part looking at the history of the development of the drug control regime, part looking at individual case studies of different key human rights issues, and then part looking at some sort of legal frameworks and legal tests about how we might resolve these real and perceived conflicts in a way that protects human rights.

DOUG MCVAY: I know that you've got some things you need to get to, but while we still have a minute though, I just, I mean, death penalty in drug -- for drug law violations is a horrendous idea, because the death penalty's a stupid idea in the first place, but that's imposing a death penalty on someone who's been tried, convicted, at least there's some pretense at a rule of law. The Philippines. The last count I saw was something like 12,000 people who've been murdered in that country in just the last year and a half, with the, under the pretense of a drug war. Could you talk for a moment about the Philippines?

RICK LINES: Sure. Well, what we're seeing in the Philippines has -- is just nothing other than, you know, widespread state-sanctioned criminality, at an extreme level. And it's a very good example of what I said earlier about drug control being an ideology, and a framework that solidifies and legitimizes the authority of the state.

Because really, in many ways, when we see the more and more reports that come out of the Philippines, we see this, is that the so-called war on drugs in the Philippines has increasingly little to do with anything drugs. Drugs is the rationale, or the, you know, kind of blanket excuse that gets thrown over it, but it's really just an excuse for the regime in power to eliminate poor people, undesirable people, political opponents.

We've obviously seen threats against, you know, journalists and parliamentarians and human rights defenders who even speak out against the mass killings. So, you know, drug control and drug enforcement and, you know, drug suppression, is, you know, kind of the coloring around it, but at the end of the day, it's just sort of naked state oppression being acted out under the guise of drug enforcement.

Of course, even if it was drug enforcement, it would be completely illegitimate and completely criminal. But again, it is unfortunately an example where we see the excuse of fighting drugs being used to justify all manner of absolutely horrific state crimes.

DOUG MCVAY: Indeed. #BoycottThePhilippines. Are there some other countries -- I understand Indonesia is also looking at following a sort of Philippine model, are there any other countries that are heading down that road?

RICK LINES: Well, yeah, I mean, we're seeing a lot of -- well, I mean, quite frightening backsliding in a number of places. I mean, Indonesia began about, you know, three years ago or so, when they re-instituted the death penalty by executing I think it was 12 drug offenders in one year. This was about -- after a period of about five years when Indonesia hadn't executed really anyone.

And sort of the assumption in the anti-death penalty movement was that the Phili -- sorry, that Indonesia was quietly moving towards a moratorium, because they'd really gone from a period of time of being a very high level execution state to really executing -- I think they executed two people over the course of five years, so it was a marked change in government policy, which then switched back with the election of the new president there, and of course, as you say now there's discussion about emulating a Philippines model.

So we're seeing the backsliding there as very, very frightening. You've mentioned the United States, of course, where we have been seeing some good things in drug policy, both at the national level and in terms of the US's engagement within international drug control discussions. We saw big change between the Bush and the Obama administrations on that.

Of course that's now backsliding, now, with the, you know, the new attorney general, and the big question mark over what's going to happen now with legalized state markets, still remaining to see how negative this is going to be at the international level, whether we'll see sort of the US sort of siding again with Russia and others, the more reactionary states at the international level, whereas under the Bush -- sorry, under Obama, the US had sort of backed off from that, and at least become quiet on a lot of the more -- the more contentious discussions, if not friendly to some more harm reduction language.

Yeah, so it's a very, despite some of the changes and advances that we've seen in the discourse about drugs and human rights at the international level that I've talked about, there are some very, very worrying trends at national level, which shows sort of the degree to which this, you know, this fight to end the war on drugs and the fight to end the human rights abuses linked to the war on drugs is certainly not going away, and it's really escalating, and the need for vigilance and campaigning is as strong as ever.

DOUG MCVAY: You do such brilliant work, and I'm just grateful as heck -- again, folks, we're speaking with Rick Lines, the executive director of Harm Reduction International. Professor Lines, you're a visiting professor, you've got a couple of appointments, I mean, you're a professor. You've got a PhD, too. And, really a brilliant guy, and again, the book, which just came from Cambridge University Press a couple of months ago, Drug Control And Human Rights In International Law.

The, let's see. Harm Reduction International has a website, if you could, direct us toward that, and also if you have any closing thoughts for our listeners.

RICK LINES: Yep, the website is www.HRI.global. And certainly you can find all of our materials there, looking at international harm reduction, looking at our death penalty work, our human rights work, our work on tracking international and national funding support for harm reduction. Anyone who's interested in kind of international drug policy, or international harm reduction, I'm sure will find something of interest on the site.

And just thanks a lot for having me on, Doug, it's a real pleasure to talk to you, and I'd love to do it again sometime.

DOUG MCVAY: That was my interview with Rick Lines, the executive director of Harm Reduction International. His book, Drug Control And Human Rights In International Law, was published by Cambridge University Press in summer of 2017, and is available from wherever you purchase books, and I highly recommend it. Their website at HRI.global is an excellent resource.

Well, I want to thank you very much. That's it for this week. You have been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs are available via podcast, the URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give its page a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power. Follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

We'll be back next week with thirty more minutes of news and information about the drug war and this century of lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.

Dean Becker Wants YOU to Call the Drug Czar