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This short report outlines key themes from the meeting of parties to the United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs, in Vienna 9-17 March 2015. The text of Ross Bell's statement on Interactive Discusion B: Supply Reduction Related Matters is provided below.

A sea change at the annual UN meeting of drug policy diplomats this month signalled a growing appetite for policies underpinned by health and support, and a move away from the “war on drugs” rhetoric.

While global drug policy reform will move much more slowly than we’d like, it’s clear that more countries are lining up on the side of public health. The membership of this camp, always occupied by European nations, is growing and now includes the United States (the previous drug war champion). It was heartening to see New Zealand firmly align itself on the side of the angels.

In his speech to delegates, New Zealand’s drug policy minister Peter Dunne argued “… the ‘big stick’ is not proving the deterrent long desired, and I believe a more compassionate approach to dealing with drug-related issues will generate a more tangible, positive outcome for all parties.”

Ross Bell, Drug Foundation executive director, added to the voices of reform in a statement to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs saying “The 2009 Political Declaration on drugs aims to eliminate or significantly reduce illicit drug production and demand, drug-related health and social harms, and drug-related money laundering. We have failed to achieve these goals – as we head into the UNGASS, we must now focus instead on how the international drug control regime contributes to broader UN objectives such as public health, human security, social and economic development, and human rights.”

(The full statement is shared below.)

Ensuring more voices from New Zealand civil society are taken to the global drug policy table is something Ross will undertake in his capacity as a member of the civil society taskforce. You can read more about this work on the UNDOC website, and we’ll keep you updated through this newsletter.

Interactive Discusion B: Supply Reduction Related Matters

Ross Bell, New Zealand Drug Foundation

The Civil Society Task Force has invited me to participate in this discussion today based on my expertise in my field. However, because civil society views on this topic are broad and diverse, my statements should not be taken as representative of civil society as a whole. I hope that my input will open the door to broader discussions about these issues following this panel.

The matter of supply reduction is a critical area for debate in the lead up to the UNGASS, foremost because supply reduction activities dominate members’ states approaches to addressing the world drug problem, and there is little evidence to demonstrate that these approaches have achieved their aims.

I want to address four areas in my presentation:

  1. rebalancing our approach to the world drug problem
  2. establishing new ways to measure our supply reduction activities
  3. embracing new innovations in drug control
  4. ending funding for aggressive supply reduction initiatives that result in the use of the death penalty for drug offences.

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The 2009 Political Declaration on drugs aims to eliminate or significantly reduce illicit drug production and demand, drug-related health and social harms, and drug-related money laundering. We have failed to achieve these goals –as we head into the UNGASS, we must now focus instead on how the international drug control regime contributes to broader UN objectives such as public health, human security, social and economic development, and human rights.

Supply reduction approaches dominate member states’ responses to the world drug problems. Yet these approaches have resulted in negative consequences, including:

  • driving high levels of imprisonment and even executions of people for drug offences;
  • forcing people who use drugs into abusive compulsory treatment;
  • closure of essential harm reduction services, which has driven up rates of HIV, hepatitis and drug-related deaths; and
  • increasing violence, and the militarisation of law enforcement.

Excessive supply reduction approaches hit hardest those who are already poor and marginalised, but have little effect on the demand for drugs, or on those who profit from the drug trade.

A new civil society campaign launched this week is urging member states to shift drug control efforts away from supply reduction towards evidence-based public health approaches such as essential harm reduction services. Currently global funding for harm reduction amounts to just $160 million, which is only 7% of what is required. This campaign simply calls for 10% of the estimated $100 billion spend on supply control to be redirected to harm reduction services.

One tenth of one year’s drug enforcement spending would cover global HIV prevention for people who inject drugs for four years.

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The UNGASS also provides us the opportunity to develop more relevant objectives and new measurable indicators for the future, shifting the objectives of drug policy away from “process measures” such as crop eradication statistics, arrest rates and drug seizures. There are problems with these traditional indicators:

  • More arrests and seizures rarely lead to reduced overall supply, as the market is quick to replace one source of supply with another, as long as there is demand. 
  • Arrests and seizures can sometimes increase the problems we are concerned with – rewarding the most organised and ruthless dealing organisations, increasing market related violence, and introducing instability of supply (thus increasing health risks to people who use drugs).

New indicators need to be explored that focus on the impact on health, security and development. For drug law enforcement, such indicators could include: ease of availability of drugs, of the strength and influence of organised crime, and of the level of violence associated with drug markets.

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Acknowledging the numerous problems with current supply reduction approaches, it is time to accept and encourage new approaches to drug control. The legal regulation of cannabis, new psychoactive substances, and coca markets are promising policy alternatives from which the international community can learn.

The UNGASS should acknowledge the full scope of latitude within the conventions, and support governments in identifying and implementing innovative policies in line with human rights standards and norms. When these policy experiments present tensions in terms of treaty adherence (such as with the legal regulation of cannabis for non-medical use), these challenges need to be openly and honestly discussed.

The role of UNODC and the INCB should be to support, monitor and evaluate such innovations in an objective way.

To further support these approaches, an expert working group should be commissioned in advance of the UNGASS to further explore the key issues in relation to the conventions. This includes reviewing the existing tensions between drug conventions and other UN treaties, such as human rights law, and advising on how to overcome them.

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Finally, urgent attention should be given to ending the funding of aggressive supply reduction programmes that result in the use of the death penalty for drug offences.

Under the banner of “supply reduction”, member states through the UNODC currently provides millions of dollars of support to law enforcement-led anti-drug operations in countries which carry the death penalty for drug offences. In some cases, these programmes operate in places that boast the world’s highest per capita execution rate and the world’s largest death row.

These “supply reduction” programmes facilitate aggressive anti-drug raids in which those arrested are frequently sentenced to death.

These programmes essentially encouraging capital convictions by setting drug agencies performance targets such as “an increase in drug seizures and corresponding increase in arrests”. Under these programmes the increased number of arrests and convictions risk increasing the number of death sentences handed down in those judicial systems – many of these to women and children.

Ironically, the majority of funding for these programmes come from members states who are unequivocal in their opposition to capital punishment and have made the campaign for worldwide abolition of the death penalty “a foreign policy priority”.

We are pleased to see some EU member states acknowledging the link between their funding of counter-narcotics programmes and related executions, and have withdrawn their funding for such projects. Yet others continued to provide this funding.

Member states have considerable influence as donors to end these programmes. You could make your supply reduction assistance strictly conditional on the abolition of the death penalty. Where this does not occur, donors should redirect funding away from law-enforcement operations and toward evidence-based public health programmes. You have the opportunity to deliver on your human rights commitments and at the same time strike a strong blow against capital punishment.

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I want to acknowledge your commitment to ensuring meaningful and well informed dialogue with a broad range of stakeholders. In the spirit of seeking a broad range of perspectives and to support greater civil society engagement in the lead up to the UNGASS, I would invite you to call upon other civil society speakers in the discussion part of this session.

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