12/28/14 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

Doug McVay takes a look back at 2014: This week: We look back at the Global Commission on Drug Policy's report Taking Control: Pathways for Drug Policies that Work

Audio file


DECEMBER 28, 2014


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, 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.

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.

Now, on with the show. This is the last show of 2014. It was a big year for the drug policy reform movement, in the United States and internationally. The US general election last month was arguably the biggest news event of the year. Before the year comes to a close, let's take a look back at another major news story that we covered back in September:

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, and they produced a report that many of your listeners may remember from 2011. Was at the time a pretty seismic moment in drug policy debate, because even though for people in the reform field what they were saying was nothing really new, I mean they were calling for harm reduction and decriminalization of users and expiration of legalization. It wasn’t just that it was a very clearly put case in 2011 but the provenance of who’s saying it – it’s the lineup of these big name people.

And 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. Because, if you are a policy maker you can say, Look, this isn’t a radical position. This isn’t a sort of revolutionary position. Look at all these high profile statesmen and UN luminaries who are saying the same thing.

So, I think the key thing that the Global Commission did with their previous reports was to create some political space and to kind of normalize the drug law reform discourse. Their new report which was released today really just takes those messages and pushes it one step further. So, in their first 2011 report they said, We should experiment with legalization/regulation of cannabis and other drugs, and 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 detailed section on regulation, what it means, what it doesn’t mean – kind of confronting a lot of the misunderstandings about legalization/regulation – and sort of assuaging many of the concerns and fears around that as a policy option.

So 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 call for, make clear calls for regulation of all drugs, and to have people like Kofi Annan and a former president saying that is no small thing in terms of moving the public debate on. So 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 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: Yes, sure. This new report is very much focused on informing the debate around the UN General Assembly Special Session in 2016. Now, not everyone in the world is convinced that the UN is an important agency, particularly around issues like drug policy. And I’m aware that in the U.S., in particular, the UN maybe doesn’t have some of the kudos and 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. And I think that 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 control treaties. And these are fundamentally prohibitionist 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 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, and reduced crime, and protection of human rights, and protection of young people and vulnerable groups, and effective expenditure at a time of economic crisis.

So, they're very clear about that and they're 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 we’re talking about the secretary general, the former secretary general of the United Nations saying that the drug treaty system is broken and needs to change.

So that's very significant and 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 that process needs to happen. It’s obviously, any kind of UN treaty reform for people who have tried to effect 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 assembly special session in 2016 as a moment when that process can begin. I don’t think anyone's 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 train. So, 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: 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 Dr. Kazatchkine.

MICHEL KAZATCHKINE: 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. And 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 particularly of drugs, and the second was to make essential medicines and opiates for pain accessible to people.

So we have been consistently saying that the system has failed to deliver on these objectives, to deliver on its own terms, and we have been calling for change and for reform. We have 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, deaths from overdoses. It has generated, it has undermined human rights and it has generated violations and abuse 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 in, more intelligently.

Three years ago we have 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 last three years, and I must 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 and in the US 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 UNGASS, we come with recommendations, and we come with five sets of recommendations. We call them Five Pathways to Reform for Healthier Drug Polices. And please do look at these as you receive the report. I’ll just summarize these recommendations now briefly 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. Now this is not in our view, yes, 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. But practically it means shifting resources, reallocating resources from where they are going now into ineffective law enforcement to 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, which is, change the indicators. Stop measuring the success of the policy on the amount of crop eradicated, on the amount of this or that product seized, on the number of people arrested, prosecuted or incarcerated, and do measure the success of a policy on how much overdose deaths have been reduced, how much impact we had on the AIDS epidemic, on the hepatitis epidemic, how much have we been able to reduce crime, violence, corruption, human rights violations and improve the safety of communities. So change the indicators.

And finally, of course, that recommendation on health also implies that we invest into health interventions and, particularly into what we, in our technical language but I’m sure you’re all aware of that terminology, call harm reduction. And let's be 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 substitution therapy. It is also assisted injection, safe injection rooms for people. It is medical heroin treatment for people in need and it's 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 that was one of the core goals of the convention in the first place. And when we talk about access to essential medicines, the commission would include opiates for pain, but I would also say methadone for opioid substitution therapy.

As you know these drugs for medical use are not accessible, 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 of WHO. So a strong call from the commission for that access.

Now our third recommendation, and I’m sure Richard will elaborate on this, this 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 our reports and hopefully strongly enough in this last report that criminalization for the possession of drugs is just wasteful and actually counterproductive. I'd like to say that it is also to us a prerequisite to a genuinely health-oriented drug policy and to harm reduction.

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

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

So, that's a strong recommendation of this commission, and 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 recently quite dramatic changes, for example in Georgia, which was also with the US one of the highest incarcerating somehow countries in the world.

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

And, our last sort recommendation – I mean, our last recommendation I'll come to, it's about UNGASS, but our last sort of conceptual recommendation, and for those of you who have been following the work of the commission this may be somehow new, is about 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 give it to governments.

And the way to do it is responsible, legal regulation. And I'm 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.

No, we actually want a strictly regulated system. And I’ll just build on what Louise Arbor was saying in New York two days ago. She was saying, I found it remarkable, that if we were, just forget the past 40 years, if we were to today to meet and design a system, an 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, you know, hypothesis somehow on the table.

Just think of how we handle potentially dangerous substances and products generally, be it cars or anything. It is through regulation. And 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's a huge number of options there that can be used.

And I think that’s why we will follow with a lot of interest, of course, what’s happening in Colorado, in Washington, in Uruguay, and also in New Zealand. Let me, I keep talking about New Zealand because I’m quite fascinated with what's happening there. You may know that in New Zealand, the parliament has voted a bill by which amphetamine stimulants like stimulants, ATS as they're called, can now be regulated.

That 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, and with documented adverse events, documented content of the drug. And if the dossier is somehow accepted, there is even 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. So, this is to me the very sort of thing that we need to move to because in New Zealand apparently, people consuming will be more interested in using stuff that they know what it contains rather than whatever comes to them on the streets.

We're conscious that talking about regulation is not an easy thing. There's no simple blueprint for regulation. That will be done by, 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're coming here with a principle. And I'll just, you know, end by recalling the discussion we had here at CSIS with Ruth Dreifuss in May that Steve mentioned, and he also mentioned in his remarks that the current system, the conventions, have what we call flexibilities so there is a lot that actually you can do within the conventions.

So, the position, 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-base. But, somewhere we are saying that ultimately, responsible legal regulation is not compatible with the current international treaties and that they will have to be renegotiated and revisited.

That it will maybe happen in 15 years, in 2030, I don’t know, but by any means, and I'll end on this, we wish that 2016 to be the sort of turning point where the world comes together at the UNGASS and hopefully acknowledges the failure of the current system, and really moves, and that will be through language and the final resolution, moves to change and to reform. Thank you.

DOUG MCVAY: And that's it for today. Thanks for listening. I'm Doug McVay and this has been Century of Lies.

Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network. We're heard on 420 Radio dot org on Mondays at 11 am and 11 pm, and Saturdays at 4 am, all times are pacific. We're heard on time4hemp dot 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 dot 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; WPRR 1680 am 95.3 fm in Grand Rapids, Michigan; KOWA-LP 106.5 FM in Olympia, Washington, and Free Radio Santa Cruz 101.3 fm in Santa Cruz California.

There's 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.

We'll be back next week in 2015 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! And Happy New Year!