03/15/15 Ross Bell

Century of Lies

Doug McVay reports: Part one of our coverage of the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna, Austria, with the International Drug Policy Consortium's Mike Trace and New Zealand Drug Foundation's Ross Bell.

Audio file


FEBRUARY 15, 2015


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 Drug War Facts dot org. Century of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, and is supported by the generosity of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and of listeners like you.

Now, on with the show.

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the CND, had its 58th annual meeting this past week. Next year is the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, and that topic took up a good bit of time at this year's CND.

It's only been in the past few years that civil society – nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations, groups that represent people as opposed to governments – has had a voice in any of these proceedings. Just getting our foot in the door took a long time and a lot of effort. It will be helpful to look at the history of this process before going into this year's meeting, so let's do that. I went to the CND meeting back in 2008. It was in Vienna, Austria, at the UN center. That's also the home of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. While I was there I had the honor of meeting, and interviewing, one of the main people involved in this civil society effort, Mike Trace. I'll let him introduce himself:

MIKE TRACE: Ok, My name is Mike Trace. I’m the Chair of the International Drug Policy Consortium.

DOUG MCVAY: Tell me about the Consortium.

MIKE TRACE: It’s a network of NGOs from around the world. We’ve got members in all the regions of the world who try to work on drug policy issues at the macro-level. We engage with governments and the international agencies to try to promote effective and balanced and humane drug policies.

DOUG MCVAY: Fantastic. You’ve been together for how long?

MIKE TRACE: Two years. We established in late 2005, early 2006 and it was a coming together of a lot of NGO networks and professional networks around the world who already knew each other but we wanted a vehicle that we could speak with one voice to particularly the United Nations but also national governments, and brand our advocacy and our proposals through a recognizable group.

DOUG MCVAY: Tell me something about your advocacy and some of your proposals.

MIKE TRACE: We generally position ourselves as a relatively moderate group. Most of us have either worked for governments or advised governments in times past, and so we do try to talk to governments in their own language, so we’re definitely a constructive and supportive NGO structure.

The – but it’s not difficult in international drug policy to find things that aren’t working or aren’t particularly impressive, so we have a whole host or areas where we’re pointing out to governments the deficiencies in what they’re doing and we come forward with recommendations on how they could have more humane and effective policies.

Some examples, that we are particularly working on in 2008, is that we produced reports on human rights and drug policy. This is an area that hasn’t had an awful lot of attention in the international debate. We’ve just produced a report on it and found eleven areas where, what various governments do around the world infringe human rights standards. So there’s a big issue there. We’ve got a lot of work to do to talk to governments about how they may resolve those problems.

We also, we deal with some of the bureaucratic issues. Some of the problems in global drug policy are not driven necessarily by politics, they’re driven by institutional structures and in the UN system, at the moment, the way that the drug policy regime is formatted is actually very negative, it’s very law enforcement focused, very prohibition focused. Whatever you may think about prohibition this is not a very effective way to organize your business. Most of us in national governments are very balanced, cross-cutting strategy where health, human services, law enforcement, foreign affairs, they all work together to have a coordinated strategy.

In the UN system it’s all dominated by law enforcement so there needs to be institutional reforms. So that’s another area of our attention. We promote harm reduction, we’re a very clear harm reductionist network, the idea that the best way to respond to HIV problems is to promote public health responses rather than law enforcement responses and public health responses do include needle exchange, they do include support for people to use drugs safely. That is a hot issue internationally, many parts of the world are totally comfortable with that concept, some countries aren’t. We promote it unequivocally.

We also look at law enforcement practice and we’re very clear on our analysis of the global research, is that widespread arrest and incarceration of drug users is not an effective policy and we produce the evidence and we talk to governments about why they should not be pursuing policies of that type. We don’t have a particular position on law reform, different situations in different parts of the world, but we do know that strong investment of taxpayers’ money in arresting drug users is not a sensible policy.

DOUG MCVAY: Are you seeing real progress?

MIKE TRACE: We’re quite encouraged. We’ve only been on this for two years. You know, there’s all sorts of histories and geopolitics and dynamics about progress but on certain fronts we are very encouraged.

First front we talked about is the idea of balanced drug policies. You know, ten years ago, when I was working in the UK government, balanced drug policy was an interesting new idea. Now, it’s pretty much the basis of drug policy in many countries. And many other countries haven’t traveled that road, but it is, the numbers game is changing. I’d say that basically half of the UN member states now talk about balanced, harm reduction based policies.

In the UN debates, you know, we used to have the American model and the American diplomatic corps won every argument and that was up until a few years ago. Now they struggle to find friends for their position. So that's, I see that as progress. The progress on other things, up until a few years ago a harm reduction approach to HIV prevention was still a very difficult issue for the UN system. Now it is the agreed position.

So things are changing a lot. So the UN, now, what, let's say the UN five years ago, actively resisted the implementation of things like needle exchange in areas of the world where there were high injecting populations, the UN now proactively has programs to encourage needle exchange. So that’s a turn around. That’s a big turn around, it makes a difference to millions of peoples’ live.

DOUG MCVAY: That’s huge and that’s a direct slap in the face to the US which is still discouraging needle exchange.

MIKE TRACE: The US has consistently discouraged that. They have, to some extent, acknowledged that the rest of the world wants to go in this direction and they’ve backed off a bit, but yeah, the main barrier to this change has been the US government’s position.

There are other areas of progress, just the fact that governments that have been very uncomfortable with engaging with civil society on drugs issues because they assume that every NGO is a legalizing body and is going to ask them to legalize drugs. The level of respect and engagement between NGOs and governments in this field has been awful for many years in many countries but definitely at the UN. Now we see, the meeting we’re at, at this week, is the NGOs are part of the furniture. We’re sitting with governments, we’re discussing things, we’re making recommendations, those recommendations are being accepted. This is good engagement. This is grown up politics.

So that’s a big progress. When I was working in government in these meetings the NGOs were left outside the building, not even allowed inside the building but it’s come a long way.

DOUG MCVAY: Tell us something. Pull a few items off of your CV for my listeners.

MIKE TRACE: Well, I wouldn’t want to over emphasize just myself. Many members of our network used to be people who were responsible for policy in their respective governments, yeah. But for my own example, I was the Deputy Drug Czar for the UK from ‘97 to 2002. So when, for this US audience, you had Barry McCaffrey as your Drug Czar, I was the UK equivalent.

So I have had, I’ve been right in there, writing drug policies, engaging with the political process on this issue. But I also, I was the Chair of the European Union’s drug agency for three years, so I was the top guy in Europe for three years, and I had a very short stint working for the United Nations drug policy regime, so I have been involved in the real difficult battles within governmental circles.

And for me, and colleagues who’ve done that, it helps you to understand the parameters and difficulties that officials face. It doesn’t mean to say we let them off the hook but you understand the situations they have to work within. And it helps you to propose constructive solutions to their problems, that they’re very receptive to, because a lot of these guys, they share a lot of these wishes to go for more humane and open policies, they don’t know how to do it. They need help.

DOUG MCVAY: After this, what?

MIKE TRACE: Well I’m focusing most of our network’s work on just creating a mechanism for NGOs to speak constructively and responsibly with governments and we’re pretty much there. But we just have to continue creating this credibility and these lines of communication. We’ll be using those lines of communications to focus very much on the 2009 meeting when, where is when the international community gets together again and decides the next ten years of the global drug control system. That is a big event and that is a big decision making point. So we’ll be focusing a lot of resources on that.

That’s going to take place in March, 2009. We’re already working with dozens of governments around the world to push them towards progressive positions in that meeting and they’re being very receptive. Some are being very receptive. Some of the issues we’re going to push on is embedding harm reduction, is embedding the idea that enforcement doesn’t solve drug problems, embedding the idea that human rights should be an absolute basic prerequisite for any drug control activities, and various other themes of work.

We are trying to understand in this week, with the 190 governments here this week, we’re trying to understand what the mood is, what the issues are they want to talk about, and where they want our help. So once we’ve digested what happens this week we have a year to influence what happens.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Mike Trace, chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium, I got that interview back in 2008 in Vienna, Austria, at the annual meeting of the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs. You're listening to Century Of Lies, I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of Drug War Facts dot org.

Now, I have not been back to Vienna since 2008, sadly. Maybe one day. Fortunately, the UN has a live webcast of the main plenary sessions from the first several days of these CND meetings. Unfortunately, they're live only, there is no archive of past meetings available. Fortunately here in Portland where I live, we have really good strong coffee.

This year for the first time, civil society was allowed to participate directly in some of the plenary sessions at the CND meeting. That means that they were all together in the same room, civil society representatives were addressing the delegates and participating in the discussions. Mike Trace, the chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium, who we heard from earlier, was in Vienna once again this year, and he spoke to the delegates. Here he is:

MIKE TRACE: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. My name is Mike Trace, I'm speaking on, as chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium. Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and thank you Mr. Chairman for giving me the space in this interactive debate to speak to delegates. And also to the CND bureau and secretariat for the generally improved arrangements for civil society to contribute to the debates at this CND. We are particularly gratified at the decision to run these interactive workshops with equal access of all participants to make interventions in the debate. And we commend the secretariat and each of the chairpersons for ensuring broad civil society input.

In the coming days, there will be much discussion and negotiation on the procedures for the UNGASS on drugs, and the issues that can be discussed, and it is clear that member states are divided on some key issues. Most fundamentally, while some member states want to use this UNGASS as an opportunity to reform and modernize the international drug control system, some others are equally determined to ensure that no meaningful reform takes place.

International Drug Policy Consortium is a global network of over 130 NGOs and professional networks that exists to promote open and constructive debate on how to make drug policies and programs more humane and effective. Accordingly, it is no surprise that we have consistently called for this UNGASS to be a setting for open and comprehensive debate on past achievements and failures, current challenges, and future options. And we want the UNGASS to produce some real outcomes that help us all deal with the diversifying and fast-moving challenges we will be facing in the coming years.

Our traditional strategies have not been conspicuously successful in the past, and without adjustment and modernization, they have little prospect of succeeding in the future, with patterns of production, distribution, and consumption of illicit drugs diversifying rapidly. We are concerned therefore at any attempts to limit or stifle this debate, for example by restricting discussions within the framework of the objectives set out in the 2009 political declaration, or avoiding any discussion of activities already implemented in many countries that may challenge the current – the traditional strategies or the current treaty framework.

I have been coming here long enough to remember many examples of CND heated debates around and strong resistance to new approaches that have now become established and effective parts of national and international drug control strategies. Countries that reduced or removed criminal penalties for drug consumption were warned that their drug use rates would increase, they would suffer from mass drug tourism, and their actions would undermine international cooperation. This never happened, and we see now depenalization and decriminalization is now working effectively in dozens of counties, saving significant public expenditures and recognized by the UNODC and INCB as fully compliant with the conventions.

Similarly, countries that introduced needle exchanges and low-threshold access to substitution treatment, were for decades castigated for being too tolerant of illegal behavior, and warned that their policies would increase drug use and health problems, and would undermine effective drug control that was based on zero tolerance. Once again, these problems never happened and these strategies are now recognized by all serious analysts as being essential elements of global strategies for the prevention of drug-related infections such as HIV and hepatitis.

We now see many other new drug problems emerging: widespread synthetic production of new psychoactive substances, web-based distribution systems, and an increasingly large, lucrative, and diverse consumer market. Accordingly, we also see new policy approaches that challenge the assumptions in our traditional strategies and the flexibility or limits to latitude of the conventions themselves.

We have seen one recent withdrawal and re-accession to the treaties. We have many countries operating consumption rooms, health facilities in which the use of illicit drugs is facilitated by health authorities in safe surroundings. And we have several current initiatives to administer state-regulated markets for substances under international control, and there are more sure to follow in the coming years.

Many of these policies and activities have been declared by the INCB to be not in compliance with the drug control treaties. It would therefore be absurd if the treaty-mandated forum, this CND, and the highest level review for the last 18 years, the UNGASS, were not able to examine in detail the tensions between our current agreements and what is happening on the ground.

So let us approach this UNGASS process in a spirit of inquiry and openness, and constantly reminding ourselves that, whatever the pressures and sensitivities within these rooms, the outside world will not be impressed if all we achieve in 2016 is a restatement of previous declarations. Thank you for your attention.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Mike Trace, chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium, speaking during a plenary session at the 58th annual meeting of the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs. The CND met last week. They spent a lot of time discussing the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs coming up in 2016 in New York. Hopefully I'll make it to that, I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Some civil society representatives were invited to be panelists for interactive discussions during some of the plenaries. Ross Bell, director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, was one of those civil society reps. He spoke in the morning of the second day of the CND, here's some of that audio:

ROSS BELL: The matter of supply reduction is a critical area for debate in the lead-up to the UNGASS, foremost because supply reduction activities dominate member states' approaches to addressing the world drug problem, and there is little evidence to demonstrate that these approaches have achieved their aims.

I want to address four areas in my presentation. The first, re-balancing our approach to the world drug problem, establishing new ways to measure our supply reduction activities, embracing new innovations in drug control, and ending funding for aggressive supply reduction initiatives that result in the use of the death penalty for drug offenses.

The 2009 political declaration on drugs aims to significantly, eliminate or significantly reduce illicit drug production and demand, drug-related health and social harms, and drug-related money laundering. As other panelists have noted, we are not achieving these goals. As we head into the UNGASS, we must now focus instead on how the international drug control regime contributes to broader UN objectives, such as public health, human security, social and economic development, and human rights.

Supply reduction approaches dominate member states' responses to the world drug problem, yet these approaches have resulted in negative consequences, including driving high levels of imprisonment and even executions of people for drug offenses; forcing people who use drugs into abusive, compulsory treatment; closure of essential harm reduction services, which has driven up rates of HIV, hepatitis, and drug-related deaths; and increasing violence and the militarization of law enforcement.

Excessive supply reduction approaches hit hardest most, those who are already poor and marginalized, but have little effect on the demand for drugs or on those who profit from the drug trade. A new civil society campaign launched this week is urging member states to shift drug control efforts away from supply reduction, towards evidence-based public health approaches, such as essential harm reduction services.

Currently, global funding for harm reduction amounts to just $160 million, which is only 7 percent of what is required. The civil society campaign simply calls for 10 percent of the estimated $100 billion spent on supply control to be redirected to harm reduction services. One tenth of one year's drug enforcement spending would cover global HIV prevention for people who inject drugs for four years.

The UNGASS also provides us the opportunity to develop more relevant objectives and new measurable indicators for the future, shifting the objectives of drug policy away from process measures, such as crop eradication statistics, arrest rates, and drug seizures. These are, there are problems with these traditional indicators. More arrests and more seizures rarely lead to reduced overall supply, as the market is quick to replace one source of supply with another, as long as there is demand.

Arrests and seizures can sometimes increase the problems we are concerned with, rewarding the most organized and ruthless dealing organizations, increasing market related violence, and introducing instability of supply, which in turn increases health risks to people who use drugs. New indicators need to be explored that focus on the impact on the health, security, and development. For drug law enforcement, such indicators could include the ease of availability of drugs, of the strength and influence of organized crime, and of the level of violence associated with drug markets.

Acknowledging the numerous problems with current supply reduction approaches, it is time to accept and encourage new approaches to drug control. The legal regulation of cannabis, new psychoactive substances, and coca markets are promising policy alternatives from which the international community can learn. The UNGASS should acknowledge the full scope of latitude within the conventions, and support governments in identifying and implementing innovative policies in line with human rights standards and norms.

When these policy experiments present tensions in terms of treaty adherence, such as with the legal regulation of cannabis for non-medical use, these challenges need to be openly and honestly discussed. The role of UNODC and the INCB should be to support, monitor, and evaluate such innovations in an objective way.

To fully support these approaches, an expert working group should be commissioned in advance of the UNGASS to further explore the key issues in relation to the conventions. This includes reviewing the existing tensions between drug conventions and other UN treaties, such as human rights law, and advising on how to overcome them.

Finally, urgent attention should be given to ending the funding of aggressive supply reduction programs that result in the use of the death penalty for drug offenses. Under the banner of supply reduction, member states, through the UNODC, currently provides millions of dollars of support to law enforcement-led anti-drug operations in countries which carry the death penalty for drug offenses. In some cases, these programs operate in places that boast the world's highest per capita execution rate and the world's largest death row.

These supply reduction programs facilitate aggressive anti-drug raids in which those arrested are frequently sentenced to death, these programs essentially encouraging capital convictions by setting drug agencies performance targets, such as an increase in drug seizures, and corresponding increase in arrests. Under these programs, the increased number of arrests and convictions risk increasing the number of death sentences handed down in those judicial systems, many of these to women and children.

Ironically, the majority of funding for these programs come from member states that are unequivocal in their opposition to capital punishment, and have made the campaign for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty a foreign policy priority. We are pleased to see some EU member states acknowledging the link between their funding of counter-narcotics programs and related executions, and have withdrawn their funding for such projects. Yet others continue to provide this funding.

Member states have considerable influence as donors to end these programs. You could make your supply reduction assistance strictly conditional on the abolition of the death penalty. Where this does not occur, donors should redirect funding away from law enforcement operations, and toward evidence-based public health programs. You have the opportunity to deliver on your human rights commitments, and at the same time strike a strong blow against capital punishment.

I want to acknowledge this commission's commitment to ensuring meaningful and well-informed dialogue with a broad range of stakeholders. In the spirit of seeking a broad range of perspectives, and to support greater civil society engagement in the lead-up to the UNGASS, I invite you, Mr. Chairman, to call upon the other civil society experts who are in this room for the discussion part of this session. I thank you all.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Ross Bell, director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, speaking on a panel on law enforcement and supply side strategies during a plenary session at the recent meeting of the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, Austria. We'll have more from that meeting in the next show.

And that's all the time we have this week. Thank you for listening. This is Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Century Of Lies is heard on 420Radio.org on Mondays at 11 am and 11 pm, and Saturdays at 4 am, all times are pacific. We are heard on time4hemp.com on Wednesdays between 1 and 2pm pacific along with our sister program Cultural Baggage. And we're on The Detour Talk Network at TheDetour.US on Tuesdays at 8:30pm. A few of the stations out there carrying Century Of Lies include WERU 89.9 FM in Blue Hill, Maine; WIEC 102.7 FM in Eau Claire, WI; and Free Radio Santa Cruz 101.3 fm in Santa Cruz California. To all our listeners and supporters: thank you.

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We'll be back next week with more news and commentary on the drug war and this Century Of Lies. For now, for the drug truth network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

DEAN BECKER: For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker, 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 Policy Studies.