09/14/14 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

Doug McVay reports: This week we discuss the Global Commission on Drug Policy's major new report on Pathways For Drug Policies That Work. Guest: Steve Rolles of Transform Drug Policy Foundation (UK).

Audio file


Century of Lies September 14, 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, which comes to you through 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.

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On Tuesday September 9th, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released its groundbreaking new report Taking Control: Pathways for Drug Policies that Work. To explain more about the Commission, and their new report, let's hear from someone who was involved in it. Steve Rolles is with the Transform Drug Policy Foundation in the UK, he was in New York City for the report's launch, and we spoke the other day.


STEVE ROLLES: They have, from the outset, been concerned with the failings of the War on Drugs and the need for the debate on alternatives. They produced a report that many of your listeners may remember from 2011. At the time it was a pretty seismic moment in drug policy debate because even though for people in the reform field what they were saying was really nothing new. They were calling for harm reduction and decriminalization of users and expiration of legalization. It wasn’t that it was just a very clear put case in 2011 but the providence of who’s saying it – it’s the lineup of these big name people.

I think what they have successfully done is created some political space for other high level policy makers, including serving heads of state, to kind of come in behind them. They’ve provided some political cover. If you are a policy maker you can say, “This isn’t a radical position. This isn’t sort of a revolutionary position. Look at all these high profile statesmen and UN luminaries who are saying the same thing.

I think the key thing that the Global Commission did with the previous reports was to create some political space and to kind of normalize the public reform discourse. Their new report which was released today really just takes those messages and pushes it one step further.

In their first 2011 report they said, “We should experiment with legalization/regulation of cannabis and other drugs.”

That’s literally all they said about the issue. So they said it but they didn’t kind of expand or provide any kind of detail. In this new report there’s a whole detail section on regulation, what it means, what it doesn’t mean – kind of confronting the misunderstandings about legalization/regulation – and sort of as waging many of the concerns and fears around that as a politician.

It’s really taken the drug policy reform discourse one step further in terms of that sort of high level statesmen public statements and debate. They make clear calls for regulation of all drugs. To have people like Kofi Annan and a former president saying that is no small thing in terms of moving the public debate on.

I think for everybody in the reform movement it is a great day. It is a very significant moment and, hopefully, it will really help lubricate the wheels of the high level debate.

DOUG McVAY: Now this is just one step on the road toward the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Drugs in 2016 which is just one more step along the way toward possibly reforming the treaties. Can you say a couple things about that?

STEVE ROLLES: This new report is very much focused on informing the debate around the UN General Assembly Special Session in 2016. Not everyone in the world is convinced that the UN is an important agency particularly around issues like drug policy. I’m aware that in the U.S., in particular, the UN maybe doesn’t have the respect that it does elsewhere in the world.

The drugs issue is a transnational issue and the UN is the only transnational government entity that we have that deals with drugs. I think it really is a very important forum for moving the drug law reform agenda forward because 180 countries are signatories to the Global Drug Control regime as enshrined under the three UN drug controlled treaties. These are prohibitionist’s legal instruments and they are what has sort of enshrined the War on Drugs as a global enterprise.

This new report really challenges that and says, “Look, this whole punitive, prohibitionist’s paradigm as a global framework has failed.”

It makes the scope of that failure very clear and it also points the way forward in terms of moving beyond that failure and putting in place drug policies that actually deliver outcomes that we want to see – improved health, reduced crime, protection of human rights and protection of young people and vulnerable groups and effective expenditure at a time of economic crisis.

They are very clear about that and they are very clear that the treaty system is broken and the UN-controlled international framework is broken and needs reform. They’re are unambiguous about that and that’s a very significant thing for these people to be saying. You have to remember that we’re talking about the secretary general, the former secretary general of the United Nations saying that the drug treaty situation is broken and it needs to change. That is very significant.

They make very clear statements to that end and point the direction in which they think it needs to go and, also, how they think that process needs to happen. It’s obviously that any kind of UN treaty reform for people who have tried to affect that kind of change in the past can be torturous. It moves very slowly. Treaties are written and changed at a glacial pace but we have to begin somewhere.

The commission has identified this general session in 2016 as a moment when that process can begin. I don’t think anybody is expecting the treaties themselves are going to be redrafted in 2016 but there can be an open debate around the failings of the system, the need for change and the beginnings of a process to put that change in place.

It’s the beginning of a process not the end but at least the acknowledgement that that process needs to start. It’s probably the best we can expect in 2016 and, again, I think this report makes that case very clearly and it’s certainly going to help bring that about.


DOUG McVAY: You are listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network. I'm your guest host Doug McVay, editor of Drug War Facts dot org.

On Thursday September 11th, two members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Sir Richard Branson, the Founder of the Virgin Group, and Dr. Michel Kazatchkine, the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, appeared at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, to discuss the Commission's new report, Taking Control: Pathways for Drug Policies that Work. I caught the live webcast. Here's some audio from that. The segment starts with the introduction by J. Stephen Morrison, Senior Vice President at CSIS and Director of their Global Health Policy Center.


MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It’s a pleasure to be back at CSIS and it’s great to be here with Richard to speak on behalf of the Global Commission.

As Steve just said since the commission’s first report in 2011 we have been consistently saying that the international drug control system has failed in its primary objectives. Please remember those objectives that were discussed with the negotiations around the treaty 60 years ago. First objective was to reduce the negative effects and the health effects of drugs. The second was to make essential medicines and opiates for pain accessible to people.

We have been consistently saying that the system has failed to deliver on these objectives, to deliver on its own terms. We have been calling for changes and reform. We’ve also been saying that not only has the system failed on its own terms but it has actually generated harm.

Prohibition has generated harms – health-related harms, the spread of HIV/AIDS among people who inject drugs, the spread of hepatitis C, some TB as well, death from overdoses. It has undermined human rights and it has generated violations and abuses in terms of human rights all over the world. It has been fostering crime and allowed a huge criminal industry to grow a hundred billions business. It has undermined development in a number of settings and it has basically wasted billions of dollars that could have been spent more intelligently.

Three years ago we called for an open and frank evidence-based debate on these issues. We called it “Break the taboo.” Fortunately somehow or if you just look back a lot of things have been happening in the past three years. I would say that we were quite pleased to see that not only a genuine debate has started and is underway in many part of the world but also that in a number of settings and countries in the U.S. In at least 2 states now we’ve been moving from theory and rhetoric to practice, to action and reforms.

In this particular report which we would like to be our sort of founding report as the debate broadens and takes us to the perspective of the 2016 UNGAS we come with recommendations. We come with 5 sets of recommendations. We call them 5 Pathways to Reform for Healthier Drug Polices. I’ll just summarize these recommendations now for you.
There are two recommendations on health. The first one is very straightforward. It is prioritize health and community safety when designing or implementing a drug policy. It means that drugs is about health not about policy. This is not just a general statement. It has profound implications.

Of course it means that policies should shift from the current emphasis on repression and prohibition law enforcement on to promoting health and safety of communities. Practically it means shifting resources, reallocating resources from where they are going now into ineffective law enforcement into actually health and social interventions that we know from evidence work.

It also has another implication that I’d like to draw your attention to because I personally think we do not talk enough about. It is to change the indicators. Stop measuring the success of the policy on the amount of crop eradicated, the amount of this or that product seized, the amount of people arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated and do measure the success of the policy on how much overdose deaths have been reduced, how much impact we had on the AIDS epidemic, on the hepatitis epidemic, how much we have been able to reduce crime, violence, corruption, human rights violations and improve the safety of communities. So change the indicators.

Finally, of course, that recommendation on health also implies that we invest into health intervention and, particularly, into what we, in our technical language but I’m sure you’re all aware of that terminology called harm reduction. That’s been clear to us in the Global Commission. I don’t want to be too technical here but harm reduction is not only needle exchange it is also opioid substantive therapy. It is also assisted injection, safe injection rooms for people. It is medical heroin treatment for people who need and it is prevention and treatment of overdoses.

The second recommendation on health is about access to opiates for pain, for all those in need. Again, people tend to forget that was one of the core goals of the convention in the first place. When we talk about access to essential medicines the commission would include opiates for pain but I would also say methadone for opioid substantive therapy.

As you know these drugs are not accessible for medical use. They are basically unobtainable in 50 countries in the world. WHOSC estimates that somewhere around 5.5 billion people on earth do not have access to opiates for the treatment for pain although these medicines and methadone are on the list of essential medicines for WHO. There is a strong call from the commission for that access.

Our third recommendation and I’m sure Richard will elaborate on this as it is something that is dear to his heart and to our heart in the commission is decriminalization. Stop criminalization and incarceration of people who use drugs. Stop criminalization of use and possession.

We have been stating repeatedly in all of our reports and hopefully strongly enough in this last report that criminalization for the possession of drugs is just wasteful and actually counterproductive. I like to say that it is also to us a prerequisite to a genuinely health-orientated drug policy and to harm reduction.

There is I think undisputed evidence in the literature that criminalization actually drives people underground away from services. It is a high-risk factor for people to inject unsafely and therefor acquiring HIV and hepatitis. Criminalization introduces and basically [inaudible] for stigmatization. Criminalization also brings political and societal and practical obstacles to implementing large-scale harm reduction interventions and it ruins people’s lives.

With a criminal record how will you go for a loan? How will you go for a job, for employment, for housing if that is with you for the rest of your life? In addition to that it just brings nothing to society except, of course, spending huge amounts of money on incarceration which I think the people in this country - which represents 25% of all incarcerated people in the world but 5% of the world’s population – I think the people in this country are particularly sensitive to this aspect.

We are seeing movement. I understand that Eric Holder has been calling for less incarcerations here in the U.S. In the region where I focus my efforts now I have seen quite dramatic changes. For example, in Georgia which was also the highest incarcerator in the U.S.

We are also saying that law enforcement should be more strategic. Currently it is really predominantly on the sort of lowest down of the drug supply chain by arresting small dealers, “mules” but actually the “big fish” has somehow escaped the system. There is a need to really focus enforcement resources on the most disruptive, the most violent, the most problematic elements of the trade together with a much more stronger international effort against money laundering and corruption.

Our last sort of conceptual recommendation and for those of you who have been following the work of this commission this may be somehow new is introducing regulated markets for drugs and basically put back governments in control. This is why the title of the report is “Taking Control.” It means taking control from organized crime and giving it to governments.

The way to do it is responsible, legal regulation. I am careful about the wording here. I wouldn’t go for “legalization” because legalization may be understood or wrongly understood as, “Oh, these guys in the commission they want every drug to be available, free for everyone from one day to the next.”

We actually want a strictly regulated system. I’ll just build on what Louise Arbor was saying in New York two days ago. She was saying (I found it remarkable), if we were to forget the past 40 years and we were, today, to meet and to design a system of international drug control system and we know we are handling potentially dangerous food, medicines, tobacco – would we think of prohibition as the way to go? No! We would think of a sophisticated, regulated system for governments. Prohibition would be the last hypothesis on the table.

Just think of how we handle particularly dangerous substances and products generally be it cars or anything. It is through regulation. Regulation could actually help governments control everything along the line from production to the product itself, its dosage, its quality, its potency, its price, its packaging. It could be about vendors through licensing. It could be about marketing, branding, advertising. It would be about the outlets, access, restricting age of access, restricting licensed buyers, medical prescription – all of these...there is a huge number of options there that can be used.

I think that’s why we will follow with a lot of interest, of course, in what’s happening in Colorado and Washington, in Uruguay and also in New Zealand. I keep talking about New Zealand because I’m quite fascinated with what is happening there. In New Zealand the parliament has voted a bill by which stimulants can now be regulated. If you are producing one of those drugs you can basically submit a dossier to the authorities just as you would do with a medicine with documented averments, documents content of the drug. If the dossier is somehow accepted there is also discussion about animal experimentation just as for a medicine then it can be sold in adult shops to people above the age of 18 up to a certain amount. This is, to me, the very sort of thing that we need to move to because in New Zealand the people consuming will be more interested in using stuff that they know what it contains whether than whatever comes to them on the streets.

We are conscious that talking about regulation is not an easy thing. There is no simple blueprint for regulation. That will be done at a different pace from one country to another. What substances will be regulated or not regulated will depend on governments and the context. We are coming here with a principle.

By recalling the discussion that we had here at CSIS in May that Steve mentioned and he also mentioned in his remarks that the current system have what we call flexibilities so there is a lot that actually you can do within the conventions.

Let me be clear. The position of the commission is that we encourage countries to use those flexibilities to experiment with new pathways. I talked about New Zealand, Uruguay, Colorado, Washington – experiment and then build an evidence-based. Somewhere we are saying that ultimately responsible legal regulation is not compatible with the current international treaties and they will have to be renegotiated and revisited.

That will maybe happen in 15 years...in 2030...I don’t know but in by any means we wish that 2016 to be the sort of turning point where the world comes together and hopefully acknowledges the failure of the current system and really moves - and that will be through language and resolutions – moves to change and reform.

Thank you.


DOUG McVAY: That's it for this week. I'm Doug McVay and this was Century of Lies. Thank you for listening. You can find a recording of this show and past shows at the website drug truth dot net, where you can check out our other programs and subscribe to our podcasts. Follow me on Twitter, where I'm @ Drug Policy Facts and @ 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.

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!


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