Friday, May 31, 2013

A Q&A: Drugs, Legal Regulation and Brazil

Transform's Steve Rolles and Lisa Sanchez were interviewed by Willian Vieira for the Brazilian magazine Carta Capital. As only a few sections of the interview were used in the final printed feature (and it was in Portugese) we have copied the complete interview below in English.

Carta Capital: Even the U.S., who has supported war on drugs policies for the last decades worldwide (Colombia is the best example), has seen a shift, at least in terms of population approval. New polls suggest Americans are tired of spending so much money and having such poor results. Is it a sign of change for the rest of the world, that tend to follow American policies? Will it have an impact on UN? 

In the US there is now a majority that supports legalisation of marijuana for the first time, and more than 70% think the war on drugs is not working. These are hugley important shifts, particularly in the context of historic and ongoing bi-partisan opposition to substantive reforms such as legalisation. But the changes go beyond public opinion - rhetoric from the White House and ONDCP has notably shifted away from the more hawkish 'war on drugs' tough-talk towards a greater emphasis on health and treatment. Even though policy change has yet to match this rhetoric it is striking that the US Drugs Tsar has said that he 'ended the war on drugs' and Obama has said legalisation is now 'a legitimate topic for debate'.

It is also more than just debate. As well as 14 states decriminalising possession of marijuana and 18 allowing provision of medical marijuana, Washington and Colorado states have become the first jurisdictions anywhere in the world to legalise and regulate non medical cannabis production, sale and use. So the US, even though it is the spiritual home of the 'war on drugs' is ironically now also leading the way on drug law reform, at least for cannabis. It is adding to the global momentum for change but also following the wider global trend in looking for alternatives to the historic failings of the punitive enforcement based approaches. 

The reforms in the US are creating space for long held views critical of the status quo and supportive of reform to be publicly aired in high level political forums around the world, and this is nowhere more true than in Latin America. With challenges to prohibition unfolding within US borders, the authority of the U.S. to impose its 'war on drugs' in its bilateral relations, in regional forums, and at the UN are dramatically diminished. We can already see this dynamic playing out - objections to Latin state reforms are now much more muted than a decade ago; the OAS has undertaken the first ever review of alternatives approaches; at the request of Latin governments the UN has agreed to a General Assembly Special Session in 2016 to look at the impacts of the current system and consider alternatives. Calls for change from Latin countries are becoming more frequent, vocal and confident- and are no longer just the preserve of former presidents. Now it is sitting presidents getting directly and publicly involved. 

Carta Capital: In its 2008 World Drug Report the UNODC acknowledged that choosing an enforcement-based approach was having a range of negative "unintended consequences", including the creation of a vast criminal market, displacement of the illegal drugs trade to new areas, diversion of funding from health, and the stigmatization of users. Its costs are soaring. But when Uruguay defended its new policy in the UN, the answer was lukewarm, if not negative. Why has UN been so afraid of taking action? Why international agencies like UNODC are so cautious about changing its policies, policies that so clearly don't work? 

These comments in the 2008 WDR were a hugely significant acknowledgement, even if they were lost on page 216 of a huge report and have only recently found broader exposure. Whilst the UNODC can generate this sort of analysis, ultimately is duty bound to reflect the will of member states - and whilst the consensus behind global prohibition is fracturing, it still just about remains in place. The global drug control system has created its own bureaucracy, interest groups and power structures - many of which intersect with other geopolitical and strategic interests. These groups are unsurprisingly now defending those interests, but their ability to stifle dissent is rapidly evaporating in the face of ever growing public discontent with expensive failure. 

The 'war on drugs' paradigm has, however, become deeply entrenched in the political system and it is very difficult to challenge. By adopting a narrative based around the 'evil' of drugs that we have a duty to 'combat' (this is the language used in the preamble of the 1961 UN convention on drugs) any questioning of that system is seen as weakness, surrender or somehow being 'soft on drugs'. The harms of drug misuse and addiction have also become confused and conflated with the harms of drug law enforcement; the negative 'unintended consequences' the UNODC and NGOs such as have identified. This single amorphous 'drug threat' fuels a circular logic in which harms created by the drug war are used to justify its continuation or intensification. 

It is important to acknowledge that like the US, the rhetoric of the UNODC has started to shift - while they still oppose treaty reform the have spoken of the need to make the treaties 'fit for purpose', acknowledging that they were drafted in a world very different to today (the key 1961 treaty was drafted in the 1940s and 50s). UNODC rhetoric has also increasingly emphasised the need to focus on public health and human rights and has given tacit if not explicit approval to decriminalisation of drug possession and use. 

Uruguay and other reform minded countries are not attempting to undermine or overthrow the global drug control system, but instead preserve its undoubtedly useful functions - including regulation of medical drugs - whilst introducing flexibility for states or regions to experiment with alternative models of drug control including regulated markets. Demand for drugs exists whether we like it or not; we can choose to have the markets that meet this demand controlled by governments or gangsters - there is no third option in which drugs magically disappear.

It is also important to be clear that, as the UNODC has acknowledged (in the 1997 WDR - under the then UNDCP), the drug treaties 'are not written in stone'. As with all treaties, mechanisms exist for their renegotiation and reform. More importantly perhaps is that to effect such reform would require a critical mass of states to demand they are updated to make them more appropriate to the challenges we are facing today. The importance of Brazil in any such process cannot be understated. It is also worth noting that New Zealand is introducing new legislation this year that allows for Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) not covered by existing international legislation to be legally brought to the market if they meet certain safety criteria and are produced and sold within a very strict regulation framework. When this model was proposed at the UN - framed as a tough response to an intractable problem - it was met with a surprising level of support, including from the UNODC. In many different ways it is clear that the groundwork is being laid for a more fundamental reform of the international drug control regime. The days of of an inflexible dogmatic global prohibition model are numbered. 

Carta Capital: The "After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation" offers specific models for regulating drug offer, with a 'hierarchy' among different drugs and specific systems to offer and control its use. Some specialists talk about a different violence level here and deeper social problems. How possible would it be to apply such a system in Brazil and other Latin American countries, for instance? 

It is important to be clear that we are not talking about an overnight revolution but a period of phased change over a number of years. This process will be defined by a gradual shift from punitive enforcement to more pragmatic health and social interventions. In practice it is likely to begin with wider decriminalisation of possession, more innovative harm reduction responses, and experiments with cannabis market regulation. It will involve pilot studies and careful evaluation to test the validity and impacts of different models and can be informed by experiments elsewhere in the region, and the world.

The possibilities for regulation of certain stimulants - at some stage potentially including cocaine - will proceed cautiously but are likely to be informed in particular by innovative emerging models for NPS ('legal highs') regulation such as those in New Zealand. Reforming the laws to allow decriminalisation or legalisation and regulation of certain drugs is not a panacea, but it could bring significant benefits to Brazil, the region and indeed the world as drug profits for organised crime reduce, and the crime, violence and corruption problems associated with those markets contract as well. There is potential for the substantial resources currently spent on futile and counterproductive enforcement to be redirected into other policing priorities, proven health interventions and social programs, and building the institutions that will be needed to regulate drugs in a post prohibition world.

No regulation model can be perfect - but any level of government regulation seems preferable to the current situation where market control defaults to violent organised crime networks. Institutional capacity will need to be strengthened and this will be a challenging process, but the reality is that the crime and corruption fueled by the war on drugs actively undermines institutions; moving towards greater market regulation and disempowerment of organised crime creates an environment in which institution building becomes possible, as well as freeing up resources to facilitate the process. 

Carta Capital: Brazil has its peculiarities. It has major drug trafficking gangs controlling whole areas (selling cocaine, mostly) and has a crack problem, that afflicts mostly poor areas and poor people. Would legalising marijuana (and other drugs) possession for users make possible to spend better the money on fight the social problems of drugs, like crack addiction? And also diminish the gangs influence? What could be the best model to adopt, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Uruguayan? 

For the specific challenge Brazil is facing with crack, innovative harm reduction responses can be explored as a starting point, based on evidence and pragmatism rather than populist enforcement responses. An example may be experimenting with cannabis as a substitute for crack that is now being tried in Bogota. In the longer term the key will be to use market regulation to progressively change the nature of drug using culture - this could involve, for example, making less risky stimulants more available, and putting increasingly heavy restrictions on the more risky products. The illegal market does the exact opposite - creating incentives to market the most potent, risky but profitable products to the most vulnerable members of society. There are no perfect solutions but we can do better if we think creatively, have the courage to experiment and are willing to follow the evidence. It is vital that Brazil more actively engages with regional and global debate on drug policy reform. With its power and influence Brazil can be a potent advocate on the international stage in highlighting the tragic failure of the war on drugs and leading the debate around alternative approaches that can help deliver our shared goals of a safer healthier society.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Organization of American States launches groundbreaking report exploring alternatives to the war on drugs

Note: The following press release was issued today by the Latin American Programme for Transform Drug Policy Foundation and México Unido Contra Delincuencia.  The full OAS analytical report is available in English (pdf).  The full OAS scenario report is available here (pdf)

Organization of American States launches groundbreaking drug policy report exploring alternatives to the war on drugs

On Friday, 17 May, in Bogotá, Colombia, Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza will present Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos with the groundbreaking outcomes of a high level drug policy review. Mandated by 34 heads of state – including the US - at the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, this report marks the first time in history that a high level multilateral agency has given serious consideration to the failings of current policies and potential alternative approaches, including decriminalisation and legal regulation.

Lisa Sanchez, coordinator of the Latin American Programme for Transform Drug Policy Foundation and México Unido Contra Delincuencia, and also a expert member of the OAS scenario planning team, speaking in Bogotá, Colombia, said:

“We welcome the reports from this ground-breaking high level initiative. Drug policy reform has been a taboo issue for decades - but for the first time representatives from 34 countries across the Americas have had the courage to break that taboo and envision real alternatives to the war on drugs. It is a clear acknowledgement that the global prohibition has failed to deliver what was promised and that a range of alternatives should be meaningfully explored.”
“The heads of State across the hemisphere who initiated the project can be proud of the fact that it has produced a set of four plausible scenarios, including one for the legal regulation of cannabis and other drugs - including the necessary reform of international law. And that, far from than being a disaster - the regulation scenario foresees a shift to legal regulation capable of producing positive outcomes.”

This report provides a groundbreaking visualization of alternatives to the existing regime – in the form of four scenarios of how drug policy and law could develop between now and 2025. These scenarios significantly include one involving the emergence of legally regulated markets for some currently prohibited drugs and explores how the international drug control system evolves to incorporate these developments.

Steve Rolles, Transform Senior Policy Analyst said:
“The reform scenario explored in the OAS report is already unfolding in reality, as Washington and Colorado move to tax and regulate cannabis for non-medical use, with Uruguay likely to follow suit later this year. This OAS project sets the scene for a vibrant high level debate on alternative approaches in the run up to the UN General Assembly Special Session in 2016 - where the reports will feed into the global debate on policy reform. It will rightly be seen as a watershed moment for the doomed global war on drugs.”

“We are urging governments in the region - and beyond - to take the opportunity created by these reports to initiate national dialogues on their central theme: alternatives to the war on drugs that can deliver the safer and healthier communities we all seek.”


Notes to editors:


· Lisa Sánchez: 00 52 (1) 553 2007 029 (in Bogotá, Colombia from 14 to 19 May. In Mexico City from 20 to 24 May)

· Steve Rolles: +44 (0)7980 213 943 London UK

The OAS reports will feed into a number of political processes in coming weeks and years:

  •  May 20-22: in Washington, the OAS report will be presented and discussed at the 53rd Regular Session of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD).
  • June 4 – 6: The OAS will hold its next General Assembly in Antigua, Guatemala. Drug policy will be the main item on the agenda. See also the civil society declaration to inform the General Assembly, which included mention of legal, regulated markets for cannabis.
  • March 2014: The UN Commission on Narcotic drugs meets in Vienna for its annual gathering including the 5 year half way review of the current 10 year drug strategy (very much rooted in the status quo that the OAS report is critiquing).
  • 2016: The United Nations General Assembly has convened a special session on drugs in 2016, at the behest of the same Latin countries that instigated the OAS drug review process. The OAS reports will doubtless be a major shaping influence on the UNGASS preparations and discussions.

The heads of states of the Americas, gathered in April 2012 at the Sixth Summit in Cartagena, Colombia, chaired by President Santos, entrusted the OAS (Organization of American States) with the task of preparing materials for a hemispheric debate about the disappointing results and unintended negative consequences of current drug policies in the Americas and to explore new approaches for responding more effectively to the problem

For terms of reference see here:


The 10 most UN-likely critics of the war on drugs

The United Nations' role in shaping and enforcing global drug prohibition becomes stranger with each passing day. On the one hand, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) implements the three UN drug conventions that form the legal basis for the global 'war on drugs' and ensures member states don't deviate from the punitive enforcement model the UN system has built. On the other, the wider family of UN agencies is concerned with guaranteeing UN principles of health, human rights, peace, development and security.

The war on drugs has, even by the UNODC's analysis, both failed to deliver on its stated goals, and had a series of disastrous unintended consequences - specifically undermining health, human rights, peace, development and security. This has inevitably created tensions between various UN agencies and led to increasingly contorted rhetoric from within the UNODC itself - as it attempts the impossible task of reconciling drug-war rhetoric and overwhelming evidence of prohibition's failure with the principles of the UN.

These tensions and contradictions become all too evident in the public statements from many UN officials, now often openly or implicitly critical of the letter and spirit of UN's own prohibitionist drug policy and legal systems. Even Executive Directors of the UNODC itself have departed from the prohibitionist orthodoxy. The range of views held by officials in other UN agencies also reflects the lack of "system-wide coherence" within the UN, with many questioning the criminalisation of users at the heart of the punitive paradigm (particularly in relation to HIV and people who inject drugs), with others going even further and advocating market regulation approaches, specifically outlawed by the UN conventions.

Below is a selection of some of the most high-profile critics of the war on drugs to come from within the UN itself.


Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General

The incumbent Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, voiced his opinion on the war on drugs in 2008, following the publication of a report by the Independent Commission on AIDS in Asia. The report was critical of drug-war policies, stating that:

 "[initiatives such as] large-scale arrests of young drug users under the 'war on drugs' programmes ... can be counterproductive and can keep large numbers of at-risk groups and people living with HIV from accessing even the limited services being provided by the countries." 

Ban Ki-moon thoroughly endorsed the report's findings, saying:

"we need to to review legislation that risks hampering universal access - in cases where vulnerable groups are criminalized for their lifestyles" 
 "I look to the United Nations family and the donor community to help advance the implementation of the report’s recommendations, including through financial and technical resources." 

Yury Fedotov, Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Despite being the current head of the specific UN agency charged with overseeing the global drug control system, Fedotov is surprisingly receptive to the idea of legally regulating certain drugs, although only, it would appear, ones that for arbitrary historical reasons, sit outside the UN convention sheduling system. This year, he wrote an article on the staggering array of 'novel psychoactive substances' (NPS or 'legal highs' ) now legally available. But rather than calling for their outright prohibition, he endorsed innovative approach being taken in New Zealand bring certain lower risk NPS within a strict a system of legal regulation, He said:

"Today, we are staring at a new drug horizon where those willing to take these substances have become the participants in a lottery that puts lives at risk. Users are potentially one tweaked molecule away from death … Innovative approaches should be applied. For example, New Zealand has enacted creative legislation that places the onus of proving the substance is safe on the seller."

Fedotov is also on record apparently endorsing a decriminalisation of users approach, saying:

"We must look into what must be done in national frameworks to see what can be done to protect the health and rights of people, so that people are not treated as criminals, but as patients, in full respect of their human rights."

How such statements will translate in a substantive shift in UNODC mandated policy and law remains to be seen, but they at least highlight the inconsistency in holding such views while at the same time maintaining the prohibitionist status quo.

Antonio Maria Costa, then Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Fedotov's predecessor, Antonio Maria Costa, famously drew attention to some of the disastrous effects of the international drug control system, the system that his agency is responsible for. In a groundbreaking report, he outlined the negative "unintended consequences" of global drug policy, which include:

  • the creation of a huge criminal black market;
  • the balloon effect, whereby if supply is squeezed in one area, it is simply displaced
  • the marginalisation of public health principles in favour of enforcement; and 
  • the discrimination faced by many people who use drugs. 
His conclusion?

"there is a spirit of reform in the air, to make the [UN drug control] conventions fit for purpose and adapt them to a reality on the ground that is considerably different from the time they were drafted".

This perhaps helps explains why Costa went on to make a number of bold reform statements, again adopting a clear decriminalisation of possession and use offences position, for example declaring that the UN drug control conventions:

"permit parties to respond to [drug-related activities] proportionally, including through alternatives to conviction or punishment for offences of a minor nature", and arguing "it is clear that the use of non-custodial measures and treatment programmes for offences involving possession for personal use of drugs offer a more proportionate response and the more effective administration of justice."

Helen Clark, Head of the United Nations Development Programme

The former Prime Minister of New Zealand, now heading up the UN's development work, clearly recognises the negative impact that the war on drugs has on developing countries, declaring:

"To deal with drugs as a one-dimensional, law-and-order issue is to miss the point ... We have waves of violent crime sustained by drug trade, so we have to take the money out of drugs ... The countries in the region that have been ravaged by the armed violence associated with drug cartels are starting to think laterally about a broad range of approaches and they should be encouraged to do that ... They should act on evidence."

Some of the political tensions within the UN are visible from the defensive press release that UNDP immediately issued following Clark's comments.

Anand Grover, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health

In his investigation into the effects of the current international drug control system for a UN report commissioned by and presented to the General Secretary, Anand Grover - whose mandate is derived from the UN Human Rights Council - recommended to the UN drug control agencies  

"that there is a need in the long term to consider alternatives to the current drug control system. One such alternative model may be the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, in which certain controlled medicines would be regulated in a manner similar to tobacco."

He also urged governments around the world to:

  • Decriminalize or de-penalize possession and use of drugs;
  • Repeal or substantially reform laws and policies inhibiting the delivery of essential health services to drug users, and review law enforcement initiatives around drug control to ensure compliance with human rights obligations; and
  • Amend laws, regulations and policies to increase access to controlled essential medicines.

Michel Sidibé, Executive Director, UNAIDS

At the 2010 International AIDS Conference, the head of the UN agency responsible for HIV/AIDS policy, joined other leaders in endorsing the following statement:

“We resolve: that harmful laws that criminalize sex work, drug use and drug possession, homosexuality and same-sex relationships, and HIV transmission must be repealed and must not be replaced by a regulatory system that is equally prejudicial. Not only do these laws lead to serious human rights abuses, but they grievously hamper access to HIV services.”

In the introduction for HRI's 2012 Global State of Harm Reduction he again made clear his support for decriminalisation of drug users:

"Punitive laws and policies, whether via prohibiting the provision of sterile injecting equipment and opioid substitution therapy, criminalising drug use,possession of injecting paraphernalia, or denying HIV treatment to people who use drugs, violate people’s right to health and harm the community.

Former senior UN figures who sit on the Global Commission on Drug Policy

Alongside the critique of the the 'war on drugs' in the Commissions flagship report, are a number of recommendations including:

"End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. Challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence.

Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens."

Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General

Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Thorvald Stoltenberg, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Asma Jahangir, former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Executions