The times they are a’changing? - Mike Trace, Chair IDPC

Everyone in the drug policy movement is saying that a corner has been turned, and significant reform is now inevitable. As ever, it is more complex than that, as governments and advocates around the world grapple with the new uncertainties.

Looking back over the last 10 years or so, I see some real change, but also some surprising inertia, and what comes next is by no means certain. When I went to work at the UNODC in 2002, it was indeed heresy to acknowledge that the international drug control conventions were not successfully controlling the drug problem, and saying you promoted harm reduction was career suicide (as it happens, I was forced to resign in 2003 for saying both those things – although maybe also for being too involved with George Soros and OSI).

Nearly ten years later, there is a mixed picture of progress and increased sophistication in the UNODC message: On the ‘failed drug war’, successive leaders have acknowledged the limited progress (now talking about containment of a problem, rather than a drug free world), and openly talk about the ‘unintended’ negative consequences of a system built on prohibition and punishment. But the UN institutions, particularly the INCB, continue to strongly defend the current policy framework as the best way to maximise human health and welfare. The vehemence of the INCB response to the Bolivian government’s reasonable proposal for amendments to the references to coca leaf in the 1961 Convention attests to their continued faith in repression and condemnation as the best instruments of drug control, and their fear of any alternative approach that ‘undermines the spirit of the Conventions’.

On harm reduction, despite massive increases in research and practical experience, policy progress is incredibly slow. The international community can still not agree to use the words ‘harm reduction’ in official Vienna documents - in a Kafka-esque twist, the interventions are recognised, but they have to be referred to as ‘public health measures’, or ‘reducing negative health consequences’. It is amazing that in 2011, when the evidence is unequivocal and the rest of the UN happily promotes harm reduction, gatherings of diplomats and experts in Vienna still have to perform these verbal gymnastics.

On the wider policy front, it is true that the voices calling for proper review and reform of drug strategies are getting louder and more influential – the recent Global Commission on Drug Policy report being the latest example. But are governments making any significant moves? I am not seeing it. Some, like the Czech Republic, Argentina, and Portugal are comfortably in a liberalising phase and, while there is still much to worry about in the US strategy under Obama, there is no doubt that the rhetoric has changed. On the other hand, some European countries are pulling back from some of the health-based initiatives pursued previously, and many African and Asian governments are still enthusiastically passing tough drug laws, and strategies of zero tolerance.

The network that I currently Chair (IDPC) tracks and analyses these ebbs and flows of policy developments to seek ways to positively influence the debate and push for humane, effective and evidence-based drug control. I hope that you enjoy reading our blog posts and we look forward to reading your responses and comments.

Mike Trace, IDPC Chair

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