The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) was established in 1946 as a commission of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). UN commissions carry out specific responsibilities assigned to ECOSOC. The CND assists ECOSOC in supervising the application of international drug control conventions and agreements. It is the principal policy-making body within the UN system on drug control issues. It is also the governing body of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Programme.
The CDPC is here in Vienna for the annual week-long meetings of the CND at the UN. And as you can see, it’s easy to slip into talking in acronyms when attending such an event. The casual use of these acronyms is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to accessing the often turgid and mostly impenetrable operations of the CND. Unlike other UN commissions and programs, civil society plays a small but growing part in the deliberations of the CND. In fact, some countries still oppose the participation of civil society entirely. What this means is that the key policy-making body for global drug control is still partly insulated from the concerns of groups working on issues like human rights and the prevention of HIV and Hep C among people who use drugs. It’s also clear that words like “harm reduction” are flash points. Official country delegations and speakers avoid this term assiduously.
The opening plenary session on Monday morning signaled the tone of these meetings. Most speeches in this session reiterated support for the international drug control system but cracks were apparent, such as a rousing speech by the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales. A speech by Yuri Federtov, Executive Director of the UNODC, reflected some of these tensions. Federtov’s speech was a carefully constructed one. He embraced the key assumption of these UN groups and meetings: that drugs are at the centre of the world’s drug problems and he touted the role that the UNODC is playing in trying to control the availability of drugs.
An alternative diagnosis might suggest that drug laws based on the international treaties are responsible for many of the harms associated with drugs themselves. Criminalization of drug use fosters discrimination and discrimination drives people away from health and other services. Criminalization has failed to stem the tide of drug use around the world, but it has helped to create a lucrative underground economy without regulatory controls.
Despite lofty words to the contrary, drugs are more available than ever and ever more pure than they were 40 years ago. But, and this is an important but, Federtov acknowledged that international drug control policy cannot remain isolated from needed improvements in HIV services nor can it ignore discrimination and the lack of evidence-based services for people who use drugs. In fact, the Deputy Executive Director of the UNODC admitted that historically, drug control was handed over to law enforcement and the principle of public health has been forgotten until recently.
Despite these admissions, much more needs to done to change a system where repressive drug policies and laws still trump public health approaches in many places around the world with dire consequences for people who use drugs.
Canada is no exception. As CDPC’s upcoming report on Canadian drug policy will reveal, a public health approach to drug use has not been fully realized. We still rely on a patchwork of policies and programs to support harm reduction and treatment, while law enforcement continues to receive escalating resources. This approach is expensive, lacks evidence of its effectiveness and continues to result in harms to people who use drugs including criminalization and marginalization.