02/27/19 Zara Snapp

Century of Lies
Zara Snapp

This week we continue our look at the upcoming annual meeting of the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs and hear from representatives of civil society organizations discussing the global war on drugs and the need for reform. On today's program we hear from Zara Snapp with Acción Técnica Social in Colombia, Rodenie A. Olete with Sustained Health Initiatives of the Philippines, and the Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations in New York, His Excellency Juan Ramón de la Fuente Ramírez.

Audio file



February 27, 2019

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

This week, we continue our look ahead to the Sixty-Second Annual Session of the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which takes place in mid-March in Vienna, Austria.

The CND adopted a political declaration in 2009 that bound UN member nations to a commitment to eliminate or significantly reduce illicit drug production, trafficking, and use within ten years.

Well, that time’s up, and, spoiler alert: those efforts have failed, and failed badly:

Overdose deaths are increasing in the US and worldwide;
new psychoactive substances are appearing on the market every week;
leading drug warrior nation Russia reports growing rates of HIV related to injection drug use;
and indicators are showing a surge in cocaine and amphetamine-type stimulants on the illegal market, which means soon you’ll stop hearing about an opioid crisis and instead you’ll hear so much about crystal meth that you’ll think there’s a new series of Breaking Bad hitting Netflix.

The last ten years of drug war have been a failure, but we won’t hear much of that from the CND because the CND doesn’t like to look back. Well, who could blame them? Fortunately civil society has stepped in to fill that breach.

The Civil Society Task Force held an event at UN headquarters in New York on February 20. We’re going to hear portions of that event on today’s program.

First, let’s hear from the Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations in New York, His Excellency Juan Ramón de la Fuente Ramírez.

HIS EXCELLENCY JUAN RAMON DE LA FUENTE: It is a pleasure to co-host this meeting on a topic that, as you know, it is a priority, and it has been a priority, for the Government of Mexico.

To do it with civil society is not only important, it is absolutely indispensable to do it with the civil society. This is not a problem that can be solved by governments without the participation of civil society.

So, let me first of all say that this type of dialogue and discussions are absolutely necessary and those, we welcome them, as often as needed, as open as needed, as plural as needed.

We need to listen to all different points of view, from experts, from the academia, and from organizations that have been involved in this problem, some of them for many, many years, and those have valuable points of view that need to be listened and taken into account.

First of all, let me say that Mexico reaffirms its commitment to implement the recommendations of the Special Session of UNGASS 2016.

We firmly believe that at UNGASS, many very important points were gained in terms of putting them on the table and allowing us to have a better perspective of different options that we may consider to deal more effectively with this problem, and thus it is very important that having the ministerial segment of the Commission on Narcotics in a few weeks, to collect the voices of groups from civil society, experts, and governments that do not have a permanent mission in Vienna.

If this is a worldwide problem, we need to collect worldwide voices, and we need to give an opportunity to express viewpoints to those that may have something to say regardless if they have a permanent mission or not in Vienna.

Mexico's position also wants to pay particular attention to those programs and policies that have not worked, and to explore and understand better why is it that they haven't worked.

In my own country, some of the policies that have been taken in the past have not worked. The results are not favorable. So, if they're not working, we'd better explore other possibilities, and not keep insisting on those policies that have not worked.

This is not the moment to show you all the data, evidence that allows me to say that those policies have not worked. There are new realities, new trends, and the issue has become perhaps more complex than ever. Having been complex since the beginning, it's now more complex.

So, without international cooperation, I'm afraid it is unlikely we're going to succeed, when the challenge is then to be sufficiently flexible, to listen to different viewpoints, to incorporate some of those that seem to have more consensus, and then bring them into those places where international cooperation can become a point where agreements are reached and joint decisions can be taken.

In these considerations, a priority to us, of course, as it has been said already, and I think it's a good point to start, where we can reach some consensus, is to try to align the efforts to the goals and targets of the Sustainable Development Agenda.

It is perhaps the first point where we can all convene, trying to align those variables. I don't think it is an impossible task. It might require, yes, to be not only open but perhaps self-critical to some decisions that we have adopted in the past, in order to make that alignment feasible.

The multidimensional nature of the drug problem demands of course that the UN system respond with the participation of several agencies in a manner consistent with the call of the Secretary General of working in a coordinated manner that respects each entity's mandate. All of them are important: UNODC, of course, WHO, UNAIDS, UN Women, UNDP, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, among others.

I think all of them need to have an equal importance, and not to try to make one of them prevail over the others, because that is not going, in my opinion, to work. Each one of these agencies have experts, have worked on the problem, have points to make, and I think must be considered on their equal circumstances.

Particularly, for my country, are the issues that have to do with human rights and medical and public health perspectives.

In Mexico, let me finish by sharing with you, the recently elected government is in the process of reviewing its national legislation. We want to build and implement a better drug policy than we have had, and we want to prevail the public health viewpoint, and of course, as you know, this is an approach that in some aspects is quite different to the criminal approach.

But I don't see any reason why not to make those and other approaches complimentary of each other, and not necessarily exclusive.

So, we welcome the report of the Civil Society Task Force on its consultations, and we will be very, very attentive to the findings that will be presented today. I'm sure that other member states will give them due consideration as well, as we need to prepare the ministerial meeting in Vienna with all the information available, and all of those viewpoints, so that the meeting in Vienna can be really a productive meeting, and a point where we advance, not where we go backward.

Finally, I encourage all of you to continue your advocacy work on this topic, from all the perspectives that you promote, by engaging with governments, academia, and the private sector and other stakeholders, to continue to push and look for responses that are better in many senses, and that will allow us to build up more effective policies, because that is the final goal, I think, of all these discussions.

So welcome you, and thank you very much for allowing us to co-host this meeting today.

DOUG MCVAY: That was His Excellency Juan Ramón de la Fuente Ramírez, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the United Nations in New York. Ambassador de la Fuente was speaking at Civil Society Task Force event sponsored by his embassy, in preparation for the Sixty-Second Annual Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. You’re listening to Century of Lies. I’m your host Doug McVay.

Now, let’s hear from some of the civil society representatives at that event. First, here’s Rodenie A. Olete with the Sustained Health Initiatives of the Philippines.

RODENIE A. OLETE: So, just to make it simple, my name is Rod, and I came all the way from the Philippines, and I believe that it's very important that we should also include the healthcare providers in our discussion on improving the drug policy.

And, let me begin my slide with a question: In an era where society places more value on lofty moralistic principles than actual science, at a time where laypeople take research evidence for granted, where should we stand?

Like many of you here today, I am invited -- I'm invested in my work because I believe that healthcare should be based on scientific evidence, and of course human rights. Healthcare quality is greatly compromised for the marginalized and the vulnerable groups.

We at Sustained Health Initiatives of the Philippines have realized the importance of these fundamental health principles, while doing several studies back home where people who use drugs are looked down on and severely isolated by society.

Throughout my conversations with patients, since 2016, collecting data, analyzing data, my initial perceptions about drug use transformed. I better understood the plight of PLHIV [People Living with HIV] who use drugs, and the emotional, social, mental, and physical complexities that accompanies it.

Now, I wondered, if my preconceived notions as a nurse have been removed, can the attitudes of my fellow health providers also be changed?

Having this question in mind, SHIP -- that's the acronym of our organization -- started investigating the quality of health services delivered to PLHIV who use drugs in the country.

And as I've mentioned, since 2016, we have been gathering data about occurrence of stigma and neglect among this vulnerable population, followed by conducting a needs assessment analysis among HIV care providers and drug rehabilitation care providers in the Philippines.

Our results presented several barriers. First, there is a lack of an adequate referral system among health providers working on HIV care and drug use. Second, most health providers do not have the skill set in handling intersecting health issues among PLHIV who use drugs.

For example, in our research in 2017, one of our needs assessment studies shows that 32 percent of drug rehabilitation care providers refused handling patients who are HIV positive, while 27 percent of HIV care providers did not want to take in patients who admitted to be using drugs, simply because they did not know how.

Third, there's still no consensus among health professionals and the medical community on whether or not to report their patients living with HIV to authorities if ever found to be using drugs.

Next, the Philippines' war on drugs has massively and greatly affected the quality of access and holistic health care among PLHIV who use drugs in the Philippines due to fear of being apprehended by authorities.

This fear, however, did not prevent them from continuously using drugs.

Fifth, many PLHIV who use drugs do not trust their health providers' capability to understand their drug use behavior. Some of the clients reported that they were admonished or worse, verbally apprehended by their health care professionals, after knowing about their drug use.

And lastly, most health providers in the Philippines are unaware of the comprehensive drug harm reduction programs to ever exist.

So as a response to these barriers, Sustained Health Initiatives of the Philippines developed a series of workshops with the goal of changing the perception and attitudes among healthcare providers handling people living with HIV and people who use drugs.

After we get, or after we got support from the Foundation for AIDS Research, or AMFAR, our training shows promise, as we see improvement in the attitudes of the forty health providers we trained.

Our data shows a more positive attitude among health providers towards people living with HIV who use drugs. As well, you have noticed in our slide, the overall attitude changed significantly before and after the training.

These are all nothing but numbers, if not supported by the actual change in health service delivery. So, this happened a week after training up until now. Out of forty health providers, 37 have started HIV and drug use educative programs with their patients after the training.

HIV care providers started utilizing screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment as an assessment protocol among people living with HIV for the risk of using drugs.

And rehab facilities started distributing condoms, which is a relatively new breakthrough in the rehabilitation centers in the Philippines. It is a big no-no to distribute condoms in the rehab centers. Although they distribute it during the graduation of the inpatient clients.

One of the most remarkable results of the training is the improvement among the health providers' perception and attitude toward harm reduction, as what you see in the slide, there's a big change, and very significant change in attitudes of healthcare providers toward drug rehabilitation and harm reduction principles, and also a very significant change in perception and attitude among health providers toward specific harm reduction approaches and holistic care for PLHIV who use drugs.

Simply put it this way: we have changed minds, and we have changed attitudes, as manifested by the change in healthcare services of these forty healthcare providers.

However, the planned annual event ended last -- 2018, due to lack of funding, despite significant outcomes.

We at SHIP believe that our endeavor has only just begun. We have seen amazing things happen to our participants, and we aspire to continue the good that we have started, inspiring our fellow health providers to transform and expand their understanding on the intersecting issues of HIV and drug use.

We will not stop until every Filipino health provider stands with us in perceiving these as collaborative, pragmatic, holistic, and rights-based issues, rather than a problem of law and order.

We will not falter until every Filipino understands that moral judgment should not be used to abuse the fundamental right of every individual, and that is the right to life. Thank you.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Rodenie A. Olete, Sustained Health Initiatives of the Philippines, speaking at a Civil Society Task Force forum on the upcoming annual session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. You’re listening to Century of Lies, I’m your host Doug McVay.

Finally, let’s hear from Zara Snapp with Acción Técnica Social in Colombia.

ZARA SNAPP: My name is Zara Snapp, and I work with Acción Técnica Social in Colombia, and Instituto RIA in Mexico.

The role of civil society in the formation, implementation, and evaluation of evidence based innovative drug policies becomes more urgent each day.

As we approach the 2019 ministerial segment, it is our job to bring reality to the forefront. It is our job to ensure that innovations are brought into policy making, and it is our job to evaluate these innovations in order to improve the lives of people who use drugs, people who produce drugs, and people who form part of the illegal market.

While governments change, civil society provides continuity. Our generation, this new generation, has opted to understand substances and not to fear them, so that we can reduce the human and social damage that ignorance regarding psychoactive substances has generated.

We know the current approach has not worked. I don't need to tell you about the consequences of these policies in Colombia, in Mexico, or the rest of Latin America. It is evident that the war on drugs has resulted in the criminalization of the most vulnerable populations.

Forced eradication of crops hinders cultivating communities. Military interventions in public security perpetuates human rights violations. And prohibition is enlarging an illegal market that already exists.

Having the goal of a drug free or drug abuse free world is not only unrealistic and impossible, it is actively harmful.

In the last decade, civil society, sometimes accompanied by governments, has been responsible for providing direct services including harm reduction, such as drug checking programs. Many of the people who participate in these programs form part of the 90 percent of people who use drugs in a nonproblematic manner.

In the past five years, 89 percent of the people who used our drug checking service, Échele Cabeza, or 'Check your head before it goes to your head,' changed their behaviors.

They are now more likely to use lower dosages of drugs, not mix substances, look for health alerts which we emit, and not use substances when the drug checking result is negative. These services save lives and improve the experience of people who use drugs.

Indicators on drug policies have been focusing on eradicated crops, confiscated drugs, and the number of people in prison for drug related crimes. These are clearly not indicators based on human rights and social welfare.

New indicators should be connected to the 2030 SDGs Agenda, and reflect the impacts of drug policies on health, human rights, development, and peace and security. We should strive to incarcerate fewer people, not more.

We should measure how vulnerable communities are provided with greater opportunities and state support, not how they are marginalized.

In jurisdictions with cannabis regulation, member states and the UN should be measuring how reparations are being made to communities previously impacted by prohibition.

Civil society has been largely responsible for the positive innovation in drug policies that we are witnessing around the world. It is the activists that are ensuring that social justice lies at the center of these policies, including legal regulation.

Fortunately, governments have begun to listen and implement some of these innovations within their policies.

Cannabis regulation has resulted in better public and social health spending. In the states with cannabis regulation in the United States, marijuana arrests have plummeted, and governments have decided to allocate previous and new resources for social good.

Colorado and Washington dedicate tax revenues to education and fund school construction. Alaska and Oregon fund substance dependency treatment and residential centers. And some municipalities in California and the state of Massachusetts have implemented equity programs in which communities of color, women, and previously incarcerated people have priority getting marijuana commercialization licenses.

As Uruguay became the first country to regulate cannabis, the government took away this business from criminal organizations, and estimate that ten million dollars no longer enter the illegal market in the five years since they regulated.

As a mother, a political scientist, as a person who uses drugs, and a civil society representative, I aim to provide evidence on the situation of the current populations affected by prohibition, and the human rights violations in the name of drug control.

We must remember that a new generation has arrived to lead the way, and to harmonize our relationships between psychoactive substances and humans that goes back thousands of years and that in the last century has been distorted because of a prohibitionist culture.

As we define targets for the next ten years, member states have the opportunity to better include civil society in evidence based policies, in the formulation of indicators, and in promoting innovations such as legal regulation.

On my bicycle, I wear a helmet, but it doesn't remove all of the risk. Similarly with drugs, we know that we cannot remove all of the harms of drugs, or drug policies, but we can be smarter, more pragmatic, and more effective in how we implement these policies. Now is our opportunity.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Zara Snapp with Acción Técnica Social in Colombia. She was speaking at a forum organized by the Civil Society Task Force at UN headquarters in New York. The event was to prepare for the annual meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which will take place in mid-March in Vienna, Austria.

The CND prefers to keep the public in the dark. Like I always say, the war on drugs is built on a foundation of lies. Those lies crumble when exposed to the light of the truth.

And for now, that's it. I want to thank you for joining us. 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 I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of

The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs, including this show, Century of Lies, as well as the flagship show of the Drug Truth Network, Cultural Baggage, and of course our daily 420 Drug War News segments, are all available by podcast. The URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at

The Drug Truth Network has a Facebook page, please give it a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give its page a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power.

You can follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

We'll be back in a week with thirty more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. 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.