Drug policy reform

From evidence to practice
Ljubljana (Slovenia)
December 12-14, 2011

ljubljanaThe last of the series of Correlation Conferences, entitled ‘Getting out of the margins – Changing realities and making the difference’, took place from December 12-14, 2011, in Ljubljana, Slovenia. This report is an account of the discussions that took place during the final session of the Conference, ‘Drug policy reform – From evidence to practice’.

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Much discussion is currently taking place about the ineffectiveness of drug law enforcement practices and of the role of the criminal justice system and prisons in controlling the illicit drug market.

Improvements can be observed in terms of general attitudes towards people who use drugs. For instance, human rights now constitute an important aspect of the drug policy agenda and governments have started considering drug dependence differently, shifting from a criminal approach to a health-oriented one.

Within this framework of discussion, national governments and international bodies, NGOs and other stakeholders are requested to provide effective answers to the emergence of new drugs, changes in consumption patterns and existing behaviours.

It seems clear that drug policies based on law enforcement and punishment are outdated and that new responses need to be found to tackle drugs issues. The panellists of this session informed the audience about current drug policy developments worldwide, both at the national, European and international level. The objective of this panel discussion was to comment upon new drug policy trends, and to propose concrete steps to improve drug policy.

The panel was composed of the following drug policy experts:

• Martin Jelsma, Coordinator of the Drugs and Democracy Programme of the Transnational Institute (TNI, www.tni.org/drugs)
• Ann Fordham, Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC, www.idpc.net)
• Jindrich Voboril, National Drug Coordinator in the Czech Republic
• Frederik Polak, Member of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD, www.encod.org)
• Eliot Albers, Acting Director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD, www.inpud.org)
• Nikolaos Takis, Psychiatrist at the detoxification unit of the Psychiatric Hospital in Athens, Greece

Global developments and new trends in drug policy reform

Martin Jelsma, Transnational Institute

Mr Jelsma’s presentation provided a retrospective on the global drug control system and analysed recent developments that can inform drug policy reform worldwide.

This discussion takes a step back from the more pragmatic level of information shared during the rest of the Correlation Conference. Indeed, the Conference discussions focused on a specific part of the drug control system – the design of health strategies targeting problematic users, using the most problematic substances. This presentation focuses instead on wider global drug policy trends, and argues that drug control is in constant motion and development. We are now entering a new stage in the current regime.

100 years ago, 13 countries came together to sign the first international drug control agreement with the objective of limiting the international trade of problematic substances. At the time, there was no push to control their production or consumption. It was only with the signing of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961 that controls were put in place to regulate the cultivation of coca and opium poppy, those raw materials used to manufacture the drugs that caused most problems at the time, as well as cannabis. The 1961 Convention aimed to limit the production, trade and use of these crops and their derivatives strictly to medical and scientific purposes. A similar convention – the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances – was adopted ten years later to bring arrange of other – largely pharmaceutical – drugs under international control.

The global illicit drug market started to flourish as a result of the effective controls that were placed by the UN drug control regime on the existing licit production and trade, preventing leakage from the licit market for illicit purposes.

As criminal groups became more and more involved in the illicit production and trade, drug control strategies were developed to put these groups and the illicit drug market under strict controls as well. This led to the adoption of the 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. Within the 15 to 20 years that followed the adoption of this third convention, national governments escalated their national controls over the illicit drug market using the force of criminal law. As a consequence, many countries experimented with a two- to three-fold increase in their prison population, mainly as a result of the arrest and imprisonment of lowlevel drug offenders.

Because of the negative consequences that emerged from these overly repressive drug strategies, several countries started to consider alternative models of drug control, one of which being the decriminalisation of drug use and simple possession. This new approach led to a split in the international community, between governments promoting the escalation of a ‘war on drugs’, and those who sought to de-escalate drug control policies.

Today, evidence clearly shows that the scale of the illicit drug market remains as large as ever. It is even clearer that the ‘soft defections’ that have taken place in some countries have not led to an increase in drug use. Harm reduction strategies, firmly embedded in European countries, are now spreading out towards Asia and former Soviet countries, while decriminalisation trends are spreading to Latin America. In some countries, cannabis legal regulation is now being considered as a serious policy option, and is gathering public support.

The divisions within the international community – the ‘cracks in the Vienna consensus’ – are now reaching a breaking point. Fundamental questions about the overarching principles of the international drug control system are being raised by a number of governments. In addition, UN system-wide coherence issues are raised concerning tensions with human rights principles and key UN objectives such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), HIV/AIDS prevention, conflict resolution and indigenous rights. For instance, the issue of the coca leaf has recently appeared on the international political agenda, as Bolivia withdrew from the UN drug conventions to re-accede with a reservation on coca leaf chewing – being the first country to denounce one of the UN drug conventions.

A radical change is to be expected in the future. In addition to the issues highlighted above, the appearance of new substances poses new fundamental challenges to the current drug control system. This will sooner or later lead to a similar situation to that of 1912 – a need to draw conclusions from recent developments and a group of countries to decide that the moment has come for a modernisation of the global drug control system.