03/16/14 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

Doug McVay reports on the 57th annual session of the United Nations' Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.

Audio file


Century of Lies March 16, 2014


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 guest host, Doug McVay, editor of Drug War Facts dot org. Century of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network, and is brought to you through radio station KPFT-fm in Houston, Texas. Find us on the web at drug truth dot net, where you can find past programs and you can subscribe to our podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter, where I'm at drug policy facts, and also at doug mcvay. The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, be sure to give its page a Like, you can find Drug War Facts on Facebook as well, please give it a like and share it with friends.

This week was the start of the 57th annual session of the United Nations' Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Unfortunately I was not able to travel to Vienna, Austria this year to attend. Fortunately, the UN Center in Vienna provided a live video and audio feed of major sessions from the 12th, 13th and 14th. Unfortunately, they only provided live coverage, I live on the west coast of the US, and there is an eight hour time difference. Fortunately, I live in Portland, Oregon, where we have really good, really strong coffee.

There is so much incredibly good material from this event, I could never tell the entire story in half an hour. Before we get to this year's session, some background:

There are three major international drugs agencies: the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which assists member nations against transnational crime such as human trafficking, smuggling, illicit drugs, and terrorism; the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which oversees the application of the international drug control treaties and also oversees the UN Office on Drugs and Crime; and the International Narcotics Control Board, which is actually an independent, quasi-judicial body. The INCB released its annual report recently as well. It was established by the Single Convention, yet it merged two much earlier entities which pre-date the UN: the Permanent Central Narcotics Board, which was created by the 1925 International Opium Convention; and the Drug Supervisory Body, which was created by the 1931 Convention for Limiting the Manufacture and Regulating the Distribution of Narcotic Drugs.

This by the way is why, when people talk about how Reagan started the drug war, or Nixon, I just smile and shake my head. History is more complex, and more fascinating, than most people realize.

Anyway, back to the evolution of international drug policy.

In 1998, the UN held a General Assembly Special Session on drugs. According to the UN's news release announcing the session, "World leaders meeting in New York from 8 to 10 June in a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly are expected to adopt a worldwide plan to substantially reduce drug demand and supply by the year 2008. The unprecedented strategy -- which involves governments, civil society and the private sector -- calls for stronger domestic laws and programmes by 2003 to deal with such issues as money laundering and synthetic drugs, increased drug prevention among youth and enhanced cooperation between nations to catch and prosecute drug traffickers."

Bless. They even came up with a slogan: "A drug-free world: We can do it!" It sounded quite cheesy even back then.

Before I go any further I have to tell you about another group that's involved in all this. The United Nations is obviously comprised of national governments, but there is more to the world than government. That's where civil society comes in. At the UN, they're represented by accredited service agencies, foundations, nonprofits, and the like, and they represent people. Like us. According to its website, "The Vienna Non-Governmental Organization Committee (VNGOC) provides a vital link between NGO's, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Initially created in 1983, the objective of the Committee is to support the work of the UNODC, provide information on NGO activities and involve a wide sector of civil society in raising awareness of global drug policies. VNGOC has a rich history in facilitating important events and relationships between NGO's and the UN system. Focusing primarily on the value added contributions of NGO's, the Committee welcomes a diverse range of ideological representation."

The 2008 CND, as the tenth anniversary, saw a review of goals in the run-up to 2016. A great deal of effort was put into organizing the NGO presence in Vienna that year. The slogan was Beyond 2008. They're not really much for slogans. I was there, our allies in the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union sponsored me as a representative of their already-accredited NGO so I was fortunate enough to attend the CND conference in Vienna that spring. There, I met a true hero of drug policy reform, I'll let him take up the story from here:


DOUG McVAY: If you could please do me the favor of telling me who you are and the organization for which you work.

MIKE TRACE: 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 from all the regions of the world who try to work on drug policy issues at the macro level. We engage with governments in the international agencies to try to promote effective, balanced and humane drug policies.

DOUG McVAY: You’ve been together for how long?

MIKE TRACE: 2 years. We established in late 2005 or early 2006. It was a coming together of lots of NGO networks and professional networks around the world who already knew each other but we wanted a vehicle with which 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 so we do try to talk to governments in their own language.

We’re definitely a constructive and supportive NGO structure. But it is not difficult in international drug policy to find things that aren’t working or aren’t particularly impressive. We have a whole host of areas where we’re pointing out to governments the deficiencies of what they are doing and we come forward with recommendations on how they can 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 reports on that and found 11 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 deal with the bureaucratic issues. Some of the problems in global drug policy are not driven necessarily by politics – they are driven by institutional structures. 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 thing about prohibition this is not a very effective way to organize your business. Most of us in national government are very balanced cross cutting strategy where health, social services, law enforcement, foreign affairs 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 reform so that’s another area of our attention.

We promote harm reduction. We are 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. Public health responses do include needle exchange. They do include support to 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 are very clear on our analysis on the global research is that widespread arrest and incarceration of drug users is not an effective policy. We produce the evidence and 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: It seems to me pretty clear that whether people can agree to disagree or just not even talk about the question of prohibition but law enforcement is a part of drug control policy but it’s certainly not the only part. I think anybody could understand the notion of a balanced approach.

MIKE TRACE: In many parts of the world this is uncontroversial. For the 27 members of the European Union this idea of a balanced approach and the inadvisability of overemphasizing law enforcement has been established in international policies for some time.

Now for some countries still arrest too many people but their intellectual understanding of it is they are quite comfortable with this idea that your main responsibility is to reduce harm, to reduce the negative consequences of drug markets rather than try to arrest everybody.

We know that in the US this is not the position of the US government. There are many other countries, particularly developing countries, who are experiencing new epidemics of drug problems and their instinctive reaction is to clamp down to arrest and punish and, in some cases, execute people involved in the drug trade.

We try to point out to them that this is probably not going to be a successful policy but obviously there are strong political pressures on them to (not least from the US government) to pursue that line.

These are all quite nuance debates but it’s important for people to understand that there is an awful lot of governments around the world who have accepted this reality many years ago. There are very different realities in politics around the world.

DOUG McVAY: You had mentioned that you looked at human rights abuses and human rights violations. The death penalty for drug offenses, I presume, is one of those. What are some of the other areas of abuse?

MIKE TRACE: This is a new area for us, in fact, we are surprised at how much we unearthed of examples of breaches of UN standards on human rights. Some of them are very clear, like you say, the death penalty legally within the UN Charter on Human Rights should not be applied to drug offenses but 30 countries still have it on their statute books and 20 of those actively execute people. That’s pretty clear breach of human rights responsibilities.

There are others as well. For example the right to health is enshrined in the UN Charter. Some things that some governments do deny drug users among their citizens access to the health measures that they could expect. Some of that is in terms of HIV prevention.

Actually another big area that people don’t recognize is access to pain killing medications. The best pain killing medications in the world are opiates. They are controlled under the world drug regime. As a result of them being controlled large numbers of particularly the poorer countries cannot afford to run the mechanisms to make these drugs medically available to their people so they just don’t bother.

80% of the countries in the world do not make available pain killing medicine for people suffering cancer, operations or whatever. Obviously there are financial reasons for that as well but part of the reason that that is the case is they are discouraged by the control regime for having these prescribed medications in their country.

We know there can be problems with diversion of prescribed drugs into illicit markets but that’s no reason to deny your population access to pain killing medicines.

DOUG McVAY: Bureaucracy, diplomacy....are you seeing real progress?

MIKE TRACE: We’re quite encouraged. We’ve only been on this for 2 years. There’s all sorts of histories and geo-politics and dynamics about progress but on certain fronts we are very encouraged.

The first front we talked about is the idea of balanced drug policies. 10 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.

Many other countries have traveled the road but the numbers game is changing. I’d say basically half of the UN member states now talk about harm reduction, balanced policies.

In the UN debates we used to have the American model and the American diplomatic core won every argument and that was up until a few years ago. Now they struggle to find friends for their position. So 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.

The UN 5 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 big turnaround. It makes a big difference to millions of people’s lives.

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

MIKE TRACE: The US has 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 some governments who have been very uncomfortable with engaging with civil societies on drug issues because they assume that every NGO is a legalizing body and is going to ask them to legalize drugs the level of engagement between NGOs and governments has been awful for many years in many countries but definitely in the UN. Now we see that the meeting that I had 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 grownup politics so that’s a big progress.

When I was working in government at these meetings the NGOs were left outside the building – were not even allowed inside the building but it’s come a long way.

DOUG McVAY: While I still have time on here....You mentioned your work for government. Pull a few items off of your CV for our listeners.

MIKE TRACE: I wouldn’t want to overemphasis just myself. Many members of our network used to be people who responsible for policy in their respective governments.

For my own example I was the Deputy Drug Czar for the UK from 87 to 2002. For the US audience when you had Barry McCaffrey as your Drug Czar – I was the UK equivalent. I have 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 3 years so I was the top guy in Europe for 3 years. 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. For me and colleagues who have done that it helps you to understand the parameters and the difficulties that officials face. It doesn’t mean to say that we let them off the hook but you understand the situation that they have to work within and it helps you to propose constructive solutions to their problems that they’re receptive to.

A lot of these guys they share a lot of these wishes to go for more humane and open policies but they don’t know how to do it. They need help.

DOUG McVAY: I know that you are very busy and I don’t want to take up all of your time but after this what do you hope will happen? What is going to happen?

MIKE TRACE: I focus most of our networks 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 where the international community get together again and decide the next 10 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 be taking place in March of 2009. We’re already working with dozens of governments around the world to push them towards progressive positions in that meeting and they are being very receptive - some of them are being very receptive.

Some of the issues we are going to push on is imbedding harm reduction, imbedding the idea that law enforcement doesn’t solve drug problems, imbedding the idea that human rights should be an absolute basic prerequisite for any drug control activities and various other themes at work.

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


DOUG McVAY: This is Century of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network. I’m your guest host, Doug McVay, editor of http://drugwarfacts.org.

So that was Mike Trace and now you understand why all of this is why all this is so important. In 2016, the world's nations meet once again in New York for a UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs. This session is viewed as an opportunity to revisit the treaties and more than that, hopefully, to finally revise and amend them to allow needed reforms and to realign efforts toward a public health approach and away from a focus on punishment.

Now that we know the context, let's get back into the present-day and hear from one of the speakers at this year's session. Again, there was so much content that condensing the story to only a handful of minutes is impossible, that way lies madness. Still we must try so this show is part one, part two will be next week.

The purpose of the session was to approve a joint ministerial statement. The statement had actually been prepared well beforehand, it was a laborious process involving several nations with strongly conflicting views of drug policy, harm reduction, law enforcement, civil and human rights. Several reformers dismissed the statement as weak. It avoided any difficult issues. On the other hand, many of the UN officials, agency officials, delegates representing member nations and geographic groups, spoke of the need to emphasize public health and harm reduction, to embrace a more compassionate approach and respect human rights, and to end the death penalty. For this we'll need the full half hour next week. For now, let's hear from one of the country’s leading the way toward reform on the international level: Guatemala. Back in 2012, that country's president Otto Perez Molina opened up an international debate over drug legalization. Let's hear from Guatemala's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carlos Raul Morales Moscoso:


CARLOS MOSCOSO: [via interpreter] Mr. Chairman, let me congratulate you on our election. It is a pleasure to see you at the helm of the 57th Commission on Narcotic Drugs and let me pledge the support of Guatemala to you and your important function.

Also through you I’d like to convey greetings to the Executive Director of the UN ODC on behalf of President Otto Perez Molina.

Mr. Chairman, in the last two years Guatemala, like other countries who have presented here, has openly proclaimed the urgent need to create substantial reforms in the global policy. We’ve pointed out the serious consequences for Guatemala and transit countries of drug trafficking. We also pointed to the direct responsibility of the producer countries and the consumer countries.

We have asserted that we all have common and shared responsibilities but also differentiated responsibilities. As you may recall the president of Guatemala met the [inaudible] debate and integrated policy that would approach this from the point of your public health and human rights.

I would also tackle the issue of money laundering and the massive trafficking in firearms that bring so many deaths to our countries. Our American hemisphere is moving ahead with the debate on this policy.

In May 2013 a candid analysis was published of the realities in our hemisphere which confirmed the high levels of violence to the drugs in the Americas. This report also included an analysis of possible scenarios that can unfold in the years to come.

In this regard I invite all of those present here to join us on Monday to listen to a presentation that we will be making to promote knowledge and analysis of this important contribution of the Organization of the American States. This report was of great importance in the preparation for the 40th session of General Assembly of the OAS that Guatemala hosted in June of last year. It concluded with the adoption of the Antigua/Guatemala declaration entitled, “For an Integrated Policy to Confirm the Global Drug Problem in the Americas.”

That was the official start of an inter-governmental dialogue in the Americas with regard to reviewing the impacts of the current policies and the search for alternatives strategies to confront the scourge based, as I already mentioned, on an approach linked to public health and respect of human rights.

This year, Mr. Chairman, Guatemala will further deepen this debate. In September of this year in my country we will host an extraordinary general assembly of the OAS to provide a follow up of the implementation of the Antigua declaration. In May we will organize a meeting of public security ministers of the community of Latin American and Caribbean states with a view to debating and exchanging experiences on the global problem that affects our region disproportionately.

I’d like to share with you the fact that Guatemala and its President Perez Molina setup this year a national commission for reforming the drug policies of our country which consists of independent experts presenting various sectors of our society. The tasks of that body is to analyze, debate and make suggestions as to changes to our current policy.

Mr. Chairman, Guatemala jointly with Mexico and Colombia propose in 2012 at the UN General Assembly that the UN should lead a debate to design a new strategy to fight drug trafficking. There will be a special session of the UN General Assembly and we have asked that it take place in 2015 but eventually it was first scheduled for 2016.

This will be our first opportunity to have a candid discussion of the scope and the limitations of the current international norms. This commission cannot remain outside important changes taking place in drug policy in some countries – partially or totally changed going beyond the scope of the current regulatory system.

UN ODC admits in its most recent report that the general magnitude of drug demand has not substantially changed on a global level and yet reducing it was one of objectives of the plan of action. It also recognizes that reinterpreting the 3 conventions that currently govern our current policy is necessary.

The implementation of this instrument is running into difficulties which must be recognized and openly discussed. Guatemala fully agrees with this approach.

It is a pleasure for me to state that the reflections proposed by the executive director in his document dated December 6, 2013 includes the suggestion that decriminalization could be effective and possible alternative for the conventions.

Status carried out by the OAS went out, among other things, that the most consumed drug around the world is marijuana accounting for almost 75%. Its differentiated regulation based on scientific evidence could allow us to have a more effective and precise to the global drug problem.

Approaching persons consuming marijuana around the world should be focused on public health considerations. In that case our countries would make an important stand on a more humane policy, the decongestion of prisons and millions of people could receive medical treatment instead of being treated like criminals as they are today. That, of course, impedes from every point of view the development of our countries.

Mr. Chairman, we need to move from partial or ineffective responses to an integrated response that would make it possible for better results. For that we need a necessary discussion at the global level involving all interested parties.

In this regard Guatemala reaffirms its commitment to promoting spaces for dialogue to identify new policies and strategies to tackle the drug problem. We invite its member states to continue searching consensus-based solutions so that we can come up with a joint and shared position for the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session. This should be coordinated by New York with the support of Vienna for a guaranteed successful outcome.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chairman, I wanted to reaffirm that Guatemala will take no decision outside the frame of the conventions until global policies have been reformed. We will continue fully complying with our international commitment and continue acting in a manner that is coordinated with all of our partners in the American hemisphere.

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.


DOUG McVAY: That's it for this week. In next week's show, we'll hear from representatives of various governments, UN agencies, and civil society organizations as they discuss the very future of global drug control policies.

For now, this has been Century of Lies. Thank you for listening. I’m your host, Doug McVay, editor of http://drugwarfacts.org

You can find a recording of this show and past shows at the website drug truth dot net, where you can also check out our other programs and subscribe to our podcasts - which leads me this shameless plug, if you want to hear my voice more often you can subscribe to my new Drug Policy Facts podcast sponsored by DrugWarFacts dot org, find the link to download, listen, and subscribe on the drug war facts dot org home page. You can follow me on Twitter, where I'm at drug policy facts, and also at doug mcvay. The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, be sure to give its page a Like, you can find Drug War Facts on Facebook as well, please give it a like and share it with friends. Spread the word. Remember: Knowledge is power.

For the drug truth network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker asking you to examine our policy of Drug Prohibition.

The Century of Lies.

This show produced at Pacifica Studios at KPFT, Houston.

Transcript provided by: Jo-D Harrison of www.DrugSense.org