An observer at the UN talks on the 2009 resolution on narcotic drugs, Martín Jelsma explains what are the chances of reaching an agreement over drug policies at global level.
01 / 2009
Martín Jelsma is a TNI (TransNational Institute) fellow, and a political scientist specialized in international drug policies. Observer at the UNGASS (United Nation General Assembly Special Session) on Drugs, he is also consultant for the Dutch Government.
What is TNI’s objective?
TNI’s general objective regarding drug policies is to make policy-oriented research and to be in direct dialog with policy-makers. We do underground research and organise forums in which to discuss those policies. For example, in 1995, we started studying the effects of the War on Drugs, and of aerial fumigation, in Colombia. We have put together different groups of people from different Andean countries to research and discuss this policy and engage with policy officials at national level. It was in 1998 that the TNI jumped on at UN level and started following the UN’s drug policies. We have also acted as an observer to the Convention in Vienna, including during the informal negotiations. I also work as an adviser for the Dutch Government.
In the meantime, the more underground part of the program extended to Southeast Asia, organizing informal policy dialogues in special formats. We organise closed meetings in the EU, America and Asia, hosted by governments, off the record, to stimulate policy officials to talk more openly about the dilemmas they face. Those meetings have been very positive. They create a different atmosphere for discussion.
What do growers of illicit crops from around the world have in common?
The common ground is the way they are negatively affected by the current policies, which are aimed at eradicating their crops and livelihood. It will be interesting to see during this Forum (see Note) what they are going to find in common, except for the traditional uses in areas where the plant has been historically used for medicinal and recreational purposes.
At the same time, there are differences between the delegations. On the Coca side, with the valorization of indigenous culture, Bolivia is advancing on a long-standing issue. On the Cannabis side, so far there has never been a similar attempt to organize farmers around the defense of the local use of cannabis. At national level, it has been put forward in Jamaica; and a similar thing happened locally in some states of India, in the Rif in Morocco. But so far, it is almost exclusively in Jamaica that there exists the right to continue to use the plant in a religious or recreational way. In that sense, the situation is quite different from Coca, where there is a long history of reclaiming its cultural use.
Opium is even more difficult. In Afghanistan, Burma and Laos, there is a long history of cultural use, but it is not claimed by the local communities, since it is difficult for them to speak out, for fear of very severe prison sentences. It has to do with the illegality of poppy itself. It is therefore not the same as in the Andean region, where part of the use of the coca plant is legal. There has been an attempt in Laos, where in some regions opium has always had medical uses, to authorise cultivating poppy for personal use. In other villages, where poppy has been totally eradicated, a minority of users, who could not drop the habit, have shifted to other, more dangerous drugs, such as pharmaceutical opium, which has to be injected to have its full effect. This has created more health and social problems.
What is going on during the informal meetings in Vienna?
The UNGASS and the UN guidelines so far have been exclusively based on a “Zero Tolerance” policy: in 1961, the deadline set for the total eradication of Coca was 25 years, and it was 15 years for Cannabis. Today we are assessing why another deadline, of 10 years, has again failed. So you have a group of countries which are stepping away from the idea of “Zero Tolerance”, and that’s where the “Harm Reduction” principle comes in, which has become a symbolic focus of discussion in Vienna. Some countries have to accept that drug use is here to stay, and give more attention to the most harmful effects of drug use and of the existence of the illicit market. They also need to try and balance the negative effects of repression and discuss what is the most effective policy to reduce those dangers, instead of perpetuating the illusion that drugs can be wiped out from the planet.
The EU is very explicitly in favour of this policy shift; it keeps demanding “harm reduction” language, and stressing the necessity to evaluate policies. Europe is generally convinced that this is a lesson we have learned from the experience of the last ten years, and that it should be reflected in the Vienna document.
There are, however, a few countries that have explicitly said that they would never accept any documents with the word “harm reduction” in it, which are: USA, Russia, and Japan.
What about China?
China does not side with these latter countries. It has started more than a thousand methadone and needle exchange projects in the last four years. There were some serious objections to the notion of “harm reduction” also from Mexico, Cuba, Egypt and Pakistan, but they are willing to negotiate and compromise. So it is basically an issue of the USA, Russia and Japan against the rest of the world.
Another key aspect of the discussion is the question of access to essential medicines, because there is an officially recognised production of medications based on the very same plants that are the basis of illicit drugs. This is a central issue for the WHO (World Heath Organisation), which has now started a program to foster access to essential medicines all over the world. WHO maintains a list of medicines that it thinks should be available in each country, which includes morphine, codeine, ephedrine, ketamine, methadone; all substances that are controlled by the Drug Convention. This issue is still very difficult to discuss at diplomatic level, partly because of the ignorance of the officials, but also because it is very political: any decision that would give the political signal that some controls are to be partially lifted, that some uses could be accepted, or even encouraged from a medical perspective, is politically taboo for a number of countries. So there is still a lot of ignorance and fear in some countries, which are not ready to give up the “zero tolerance” policy. The USA, for example, dismiss any reference to the WHO, because they see the WHO as too liberal when it comes to anti-drugs legislation.
Other aspects of the discussions are about human rights, indigenous rights and cultural uses. It is most prominently the case with the Coca issue, brought forward by Bolivia. But it was surprising that even a repetition of the 1998 UNGASS resolution (which defended the use of coca in indigenous cultures) was heavily objected to by some countries.
Who is opposing the use of human rights language in the final document?
The main problems come from China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan and Iran, who refuse any reference to the human rights treaty. Other countries like the USA, Canada, Brazil or Australia haven’t signed the Declaration of Indigenous Rights, which would be fully applicable for the defense of traditional uses of certain plants. The UNGASS resolution needs to be based on consensus, which means that most of the references to indigenous rights will not be included.
The same goes for the “right to health”. The international human rights law, through the Declaration of Social and Economic Civil Rights, stipulates the right for all persons to achieve the highest level of mental and physical health. Which is a clear principle and a strong defense of “harm reduction” measures; it literally says that even drug users have the full right to obtain well-being and to receive medical care, even if they don’t stop using drugs. This right is being contested almost exclusively by the USA, which have never signed that Declaration. The Human Rights Council has written a letter to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs explaining that the right to health is an unalienable human right, and that it constitutes an obligation for countries to implement “harm reduction” measures.
What are you expecting to see in the next UNGASS resolution?
I think we are not going to have a major breakthrough, but changes are to come, because with such a level of polarisation, it is almost impossible for the system, on a UN level, to survive.
Will there be openings from the Obama administration in the future? We still don’t know. If it happens, it would demonstrate more respect for multilateral decision-making and UN processes, in other words less bullying. And if that happens, a small and easy first step would be to relate the UNGASS to the Right to Health or to Human Rights.
How would that sound?
A sentence like “health-based drug policy” or a “development-oriented drug policies towards cultivation” would be enough to make a big change.
Interview realised during the Ist Global Forum of Producers of Crops declared to be Illicit, 29-31 January, 2009, Barcelona.
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