Category Archives: international drug policy

The ketamine controversy, continued

This blog was originally posted here

UN legal opinion adds confusion while China changes its scheduling proposal

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna will decide next week between two opposite proposals by China and the WHO about international control ofketamine, an essential anaesthetic in human and veterinary medicine. China originally proposed bringing ketamine under the 1971 Convention’s most severe control regime of Schedule I, which would dramatically affect its availability for surgery in poor rural settings and emergency situations. The WHO Expert Committee reviewed all the evidence and advised against any international control of ketamine, arguing it would trigger a public health disaster.

fact sheet produced by concerned NGOs, TNI among them, has received endorsements from over 80 organisations around the world, including many medical associations of anaesthesiologists and palliative care. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies came out with its own statement of concern. At intersessional CND meetings past weeks in Vienna, several countries expressed their worry about the Chinese proposal and questioned the procedural legality of bringing it to a vote, now that the WHO has strongly recommended against it. Confronted with broad opposition, China changed it proposal and now calls for inclusion in Schedule IV instead, the lightest control regime under the 1971 Convention. The move is meant to soothe concerns and apparently several countries that opposed China’s original proposal are considering the softer option as an acceptable compromise.

Adding ketamine to Schedule IV, however, would still negatively impact on its availability in a number of countries, less severely so when compared to Schedule I, but millions of people would still be at risk of not having access to anaesthesia if they require surgery (seeextended fact sheet). Moreover, too little attention has been given in the debate so far to the potential consequences for future scheduling decisions, as this would set a precedent to add substances to the treaty schedules bypassing WHO’s expert advice. In response to questions raised about the procedure, UNODC asked the UN Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) in New York for a legal opinion about the basic question: “Can the Commission on Narcotic Drugs schedule a substance under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971 if there is a recommendation from the World Health Organization that the substance should not be placed under international control?”. Unfortunately, under time pressure, OLA produced an unhelpful, confusing and questionable legal argumentation concluding that “the Commission can schedule a substance under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances even if there is a recommendation from WHO that the substance should not be placed under international control” (E/CN.7/2015/14).

The 1971 treaty – as explained in detail in its Commentary – established a threshold for substances to be eligible for international control, which requires a careful weighing of their addictive and harmful properties against their medicinal usefulness. The review of the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence is “determinative” regarding medical and scientific matters whether or not a substance meets that threshold. Once the WHO has determined that a substance meets those minimum criteria warranting international control, the CND can discuss the WHO recommendation and consider additional arguments (“economic, social, legal, administrative and other factors it may consider relevant”) to either adopt, reject or deviate from the choice for the particular Schedule recommended by the WHO. As spelled out in the Commentary on the 1971 Convention, if the WHO “recommends in its communication to the Commission that the substance should not be controlled, the Commission would not be authorized to place it under control” (§ 22, p. 71). Clear and simple, it seems, but apparently not for the Office on Legal Affairs.

In its legal opinion, OLA acknowledges that “WHO assessments are determinative as to medical and scientific matters of a substance,” but then continues saying: “but the ultimate authority to decide whether the substance should be added in a Schedule rests with the Commission. In doing so, the Commission is required to take into account factors broader than medical and scientific factors.” The CND “is expected to take a broader perspective, and is required to take into account all relevant factors to reach a conclusion.” On those grounds OLA then reaches its controversial conclusion quoted above, contradicting the official Commentary, and clearing the path – though the OLA advice is not binding in any way – for bringing China’s proposal for scheduling to a CND vote next week. Two-thirds of the 53 CND Member States would need to vote in favour to adopt it, in other words if 18 countries vote against it or abstain from voting the proposal would be rejected.

Following OLA’s treaty interpretation means that the other factors that the CND needs to consider (economic, social, legal, administrative) may provide sufficient reason for adding a substance to a treaty schedule, including if the substance does not meet the required threshold of dependence-producing and harmful properties. The OLA opinion confuses the clear intention of the treaty to establish a minimum threshold to be determined on the basis of medical/scientific evidence by the WHO, with the subsequent discretion of the CND to deviate from WHO’s specific recommendation about which schedule would be most appropriate, after taking into consideration other factors. It is difficult to understand how OLA arrived at such a fundamentally flawed judgement.

OLA also looked into the scheduling history to determine whether there have been any precedents for the situation the CND is confronted with now in the case of ketamine. Two previous cases, in 1991 and 1999, were identified as possibly relevant cases to consider. After acknowledging their different nature compared to the question at hand and that “these two cases seem to indicate that the Commission has generally followed WHO recommendations”, OLA then concludes in what again appears to be a difficult-to-follow twist of the argument that “the practice of the Commission to reject WHO recommendations is still relevant as it indicates that the Commission has not felt itself bound by WHO recommendations.” For the matter under consideration not only a confusing but also an irrelevant remark, because nobody questions that the CND has considerable discretion under the 1971 Convention (more than allowed under the 1961 Convention) to deviate from WHO scheduling recommendations. The treaty and the Commentary make very clear that indeed, the CND is not “bound by WHO recommendations”. The one thing the CND is not allowed to do, however, is scheduling a substance that the WHO has reviewed and concluded that it does not meet the threshold that warrants international control. In the case of ketamine, the WHO has reviewed and decided that three times now…

In one of the previous cases the OLA refers to, arguments were raised in the procedure that could in fact be relevant for the current situation. In short, Spain, worried over the amount of new psychoactive substances appearing on the market, tabled in 1999 a proposal to add all isomers, esters and ethers of substances already on Schedule I or II, placing all such chemically similar substances under the same control. The WHO reviewed the Spanish proposal, and recommended instead to only add substances falling under the much narrower definition of “stereoisomers” and only for Schedule I. The CND adopted by vote the WHO recommendation, and according to the OLA document “there is no record of any action taken with respect to the substances to which WHO objected”. And indeed, correctly following treaty procedures no vote was taken on the Spanish proposal because that included a much broader range of substances that the WHO had not recommended for international control.

The Netherlands argued at the time that the 1971 Convention “prescribes that new substances should first be carefully examined by WHO and then could be added to one of four Schedules if deemed necessary” and that the Spanish proposal therefore “may contradict the scheduling procedure”. The Netherlands “attaches great importance to a balanced and thorough expert opinion on health and social risks created by new substances before they are included in a schedule. As indicated above, WHO is required by the Convention to examine and evaluate each individual substance. Applying unconditional analogue scheduling would, however, substantially diminish the importance of this WHO task. In the opinion of the Netherlands, this would be a loss of expertise and negatively affect the scientific basis of the decision-making process within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.”

As the OLA opinion confirms (in spite of its confused wording), there is not a single precedent in the history of scheduling decisions under the 1971 Convention where the CND decided to schedule a substance that had not been recommended for scheduling by the WHO. If the CND would decide to vote on the Chinese proposal to schedule ketamine, despite the fact that the WHO has already determined three times that it does not meet the threshold criteria for international control, it would therefore set a very worrying precedent. It effectively means the removal of the medical/scientific threshold for international control and abolishing the determinative nature of the mandate given to the WHO. The consequence of that for the future would be that any CND Member State from now on can call for a vote to put any substance on whatever schedule of the 1971 Convention (under the 1961 Convention this would be unthinkable), regardless of the opinion of the WHO Expert Committee. Tramadol and khat would be likely candidates to become scheduled in the coming years in a similar way, using the ketamine precedent to justify neglecting WHO’s expert advice again.

The OLA opinion was accompanied by a disclaimer saying that countries and the CND “may take a different view to the responses we provide. As such, our response should not in any way be construed as the only or definitive view.” Countries should critically examine OLA’s legal opinion and carefully consider its consequences for the future functioning of the UN drug control treaty system. Allowing the CND to vote about the scheduling of ketamine contrary to WHO’s recommendation, makes a mockery of the evidence-based intentions of the treaties and politicizes scheduling decisions in the future. Countries that are genuine in their calls for a more health- and human rights-based drug control system, for improving access and availability of essential medicines and for a more evidence-driven drug policy making, cannot allow this to happen…

See also my previous blog: “CND decision to schedule ketamine would undermine WHO treaty mandate”, 16 February 2015

World Medical Association warns against making essential anaesthetic a controlled drug, WMA press release, March 6, 2015

CND decision to schedule ketamine would undermine WHO treaty mandate

This blog was first posted here

The UN Commission considers to bring ketamine under the control of the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances contrary to WHO recommendations
Monday, February 16, 2015

The 58th Session of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March 2015 has been asked to consider a Chinese proposal to place ketamine – an essential medicine used for anaesthesia – in Schedule I of the 1971 Convention (E/CN.7/2015/7 and E/CN.7/2015/81). Ketamine is the only available anaesthetic for essential surgery in most rural areas of developing countries, home to more than 2 billion of the world’s people. Scheduling ketamine under any of the 1971 treaty schedules will reduce its availability and further deepen the already acute crisis of global surgery.

The WHO has strongly and repeatedly recommended against international control, warning it would constitute a public health crisis in countries where no alternatives are available. The CND is taking place in Vienna on 9-17 March 2015.

> See also: Fact Sheet on the Proposal to Discuss International Scheduling of Ketamine at the 58th CND

On the UNODC website, in the CND section, appears a page under the title “Scheduling procedures” containing incomplete – and therefore misleading – information with regard to the options available to the CND in the case of a decision on ketamine. It says that the Commission “may decide – contrary to a recommendation of WHO – to add a substance to a schedule of the 1971 Convention or refuse to do so, to add a substance to a different schedule than recommended, or to remove a substance from the schedule in which it is listed or refuse to do so. However, the CND has to take into account the assessment from the WHO, which shall be determinative as to medical and scientific matters, and to bear in mind the economic, social, legal, administrative and other factors communicated to it by the Parties.”[1]

The footnote to the paragraph references the Commentary on the 1971 Convention [2], which indeed talks about the Commission’s “very wide discretionary powers” but it adds that this “does not mean that it may act arbitrarily”. [3] The key procedural question on the table in the case of ketamine is whether the CND “may decide – contrary to a recommendation of WHO – to add a substance to a schedule of the 1971 Convention”, a correct direct quote from the Commentary. [4] However, the Commentary also specifies that “there are cases in which the Commission would be bound to act in accordance with recommendations of WHO”, cases that unequivocally apply to the current case of ketamine:

commentary-1971-par22

The WHO Expert Committee in its latest review clearly established that “ketamine abuse currently does not appear to pose a sufficient public-health risk of global scale to warrant scheduling. Consequently, the Committee recommended that ketamine not be placed under international control at this time.” [5] According to the Commentary quote above, that means that “the Commission would not be authorized to place it under control.”

Moreover, the Commentary also mentions specific restrictions on the CND to decide about adding substances to Schedule I:

commentary-1971-par24

Again, the WHO Expert Committee is very clear on that issue:

“Ketamine is included in the WHO Model List of essential medicines and the WHO Model List of essential medicines for children as well as in many national lists of essential medicines. Ketamine has analgesic, hypnotic and short-term memory loss (amnesic) effects and is useful for induction of anaesthesia, procedural sedation and analgesia. Compelling evidence was presented about the prominent place of ketamine as an anaesthetic in developing countries and crisis situations. The ease of parenteral administration gives ketamine a major advantage when anaesthetic gases are impossible to use owing to limited equipment and a lack of appropriately trained specialists.”[6]

According to the Commentary quote above, this means that the CND cannot decide to place ketamine in Schedule I. This renders the Chinese proposal to include ketamine in Schedule I invalid under the terms of the treaty, thereby ruling out the option of calling for a vote on the proposal. Also the note prepared by the Secretariat on “Changes in the scope of control of substances”, is confusing and misleading. After describing the Chinese proposal, under the heading “Action to be taken by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs” the note explains the voting procedure specifying that a decision requires a two-thirds majority, concluding:

“The Commission should therefore decide whether it wishes to place ketamine under Schedule I of the 1971 Convention or, if not, what other action, if any, might be required.”[7]

The Secretariat does not point out the obvious contradiction with the WHO recommendation (which is only included in the note as an annex) and the procedural limitations the WHO conclusion places on the nature of the decision the CND can make. Instead, the issue is presented under the title “Consideration of a notification from China concerning the proposed recommendation for international control of ketamine under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971” and the note implies that the normal action to take would be to call for a vote. The WHO recommendation not to place ketamine under international control is only included as an annex.

Conclusion

Both the UNODC website text and the note by the secretariat give the misleading impression that the CND has full discretion to decide against the WHO recommendation and that the procedurally normal course of action would be for CND Member States to vote on the Chinese proposal. Under the terms of the 1971 Convention, as clearly explained in the Commentary, neither is correct. While the CND does have more discretionary powers in scheduling decisions under the 1971 Convention compared to the 1961 Single Convention, there are clearly established restrictions how far a CND decision can deviate from the WHO recommendations. Those restrictions fully apply in the case of ketamine and exclude the option for the CND to place ketamine under international control. The WHO review outcomes have rendered the Chinese proposal for scheduling invalid under the terms of the 1971 Convention.

The importance of following the proper procedure of scheduling in the international drug control system goes much further than the urgency right now to prevent the public health disaster that would be triggered by scheduling ketamine. Allowing this procedure to proceed unquestioned would set a dangerous precedent for scheduling other substances such astramadol and khat in the future in a similar way bypassing WHO advice. It would once again marginalize the role of the WHO in the UN drug control system and undermine the specific treaty mandate given to the WHO Expert Committee to provide an evidence base to scheduling decisions. It would be yet another example that the original treaty balance between assuring adequate access of controlled substances for medicinal purposes while preventing diversion and abuse, has been lost. It is also a good litmus test for the welcome but often vague discourse of shifting towards a health and human rights-based drug control approach. Keeping ketamine out of the treaty schedules is a good example of what taking that discourse serious means in practice.


[1] Scheduling procedures, UNODC web page (visited 8 February 2015), first paragraph 11 (there are two).

[2] Article 2(4)-2(6), 1971 Convention. See also the Commentary on the Convention on Psychotropic Substances , pp. 45-72.

[3] Paragraph 19, p. 70.

[4] Paragraph 20, p. 71.

[5] WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence: thirty-sixth report, WHO technical report series no. 991, 2015, p. 45.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] E/CN.7/2015/7, Changes in the scope of control of substances, Note by the Secretariat, p. 10.

Worrying proposals to discuss the international scheduling of Ketamine at the CND in March 2015

As noted in the 2014 TNI – IDPC report Scheduling in the international drug control system, although often viewed as an obscure technical issue, the problem of scheduling lies at the core of the functioning of the international drug control system. Scheduling – the classification of a substance within a graded system of controls and restrictions, or ‘schedules’ – must take place in order for a substance to be included in the international control framework, and determines the type and intensity of controls to be applied. For this reason, the topic is of central importance.  Within this context, recent years have seen ketamine become an increasing point of contention.  Concerned by ‘recreational use’, some states, China key among them, have been pushing for international control of the drug.  This goes against repeated recommendations from the WHO, the body responsible for providing expert guidance on scheduling decisions within the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND).  As the WHO points out, while some non-medical use certainly takes place within some parts of the world, international scheduling would likely have damaging consequences on medical access to the drug (a WHO listed essential medicine) in developing countries.  Here it is the only available anaesthetic for essential surgery in most rural areas.

This Fact Sheet on the Proposal to Discuss International Scheduling of Ketamine at the 58th CND – endorsed by a wide range of civil society organisations, including the GDPO – provides background on the issue and explains why international scheduling would go against all the scientific evidence on the issue, be procedurally unsound and generate considerable negative public health impacts in parts of the world where there is already an acute crisis in essential surgery.

Fatal attraction: Brownfield’s flexibility doctrine and global drug policy reform

This post was first published here at the Huffington Post

A joint contribution by:

Professor Dave Bewley-Taylor
Director, Global Drug Policy Observatory, Swansea University

Martin Jelsma
Coordinator, Transnational Institute Drugs and Democracy Programme

Damon Barrett
Director, International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy

___________________________________

State-level cannabis reforms, which gathered steam this month, have exposed the inability of the United States to abide by the terms of the legal bedrock of the global drug control system; the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This is something that should force a much-needed conversation about reform to long-standing international agreements. But while ostensibly ‘welcoming’ the international drug policy reform debate, it is a conversation the US federal government actually wishes to avoid. The result is a new official position on the UN drugs treaties that, despite its seductively progressive tone, serves only to sustain the status quo and may cause damage beyond drug policy.

The 1961 Single Convention has been massively influential. Almost every state in the world is bound to prohibit cultivation, trade and possession of cannabis and a range of other substances such as coca and opium for anything but medical and scientific purposes. Wherever you are, your drugs laws are probably modeled on this agreement.

The United States has been a staunch defender of this legal regime. The treaties are central to its foreign policy on drugs, including in Latin America. But at home the government has been clear that it will not trample on the will of voters with regard to cannabis, even though this places it in breach of the 1961 Convention. So the US faces a predicament; a treaty breach it does not wish to admit within a system it wishes to protect.

The response is the new ‘four pillars’ approach, set out by Ambassador William Brownfield (Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement):

Respect the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions…

Accept flexible interpretation of those conventions…

Tolerate different national drug policies…accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs…

Combat and resist criminal organizations

Brownfield’s statement received some positive responses, welcoming it as a breakthrough in drug policy reform. However, its attractiveness is superficial and there are important reasons to be cautious.

For US foreign policy on drugs the four pillars make sense in the short term. Through these pillars, the US can appear to embrace reform discussions while changing nothing of substance. US approaches to Latin America that have dominated US attentions can carry on as before. The US gets to continue to have presence in places it has no business being other than to fight the drug trade – the fourth pillar of this ‘new’ approach.

In addition, in defending the ‘integrity of the treaties’, the US can go on using those treaties as a disciplinary tool against producer and transit nations in the region. Under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, when a country does not fulfill the requirements of the international drugs conventions, the President determines that the country has ‘failed demonstrably’ to meet its obligations, which can lead to sanctions.

Bolivia received such a determination again only a few weeks ago. While explaining the rationale for a more ‘flexible interpretation’ Brownfield said, ‘Things have changed since 1961‘. However, the Presidential Determination on Bolivia stressed that the ‘frameworks established by the U.N. conventions are as applicable to the contemporary world as when they were negotiated and signed by the vast majority of U.N. member states‘.

The determination further expressed the US government’s concern that Bolivia tries ‘to limit, redefine, and circumvent the scope and control‘ for coca under the 1961 Convention, even though that is precisely what the US is doing in the case of cannabis.

The US also objected to Bolivia’s efforts to have traditional uses of coca removed from international control because it challenged the ‘integrity of the treaties’ – the very first pillar above. So which countries’ reforms or interpretations will be deemed tolerable, and which will threaten the integrity of the treaties? Crucially, who decides?

It is clear that a legally regulated market in cannabis is not permissible under the 1961 Single Convention. To deal with this the US, in the second pillar above, has signalled its acceptance of unilateral interpretation of multilateral agreements beyond what those agreements allow for. That is a very serious call beyond cannabis and beyond drug policies. The attempt under the Bush administration to argue that waterboardingwas not a breach of the UN Convention Against Torture and that detainees in the war on terror were not covered by the Geneva Conventions should caution against allowing this kind of unilateral approach.

In reality, beyond the progressive sounding words, the path the Brownfield doctrine set out leads to further US exceptionalism and the ongoing use of the treaties as it sees fit.

But that exceptionalism cuts both ways, and the US has also vital interests, including national security, in holding states to international and bilateral treaty obligations. A recent example demonstrates the risks of failing to take this into account. In July, the US issued a determination that Russia was in violation of obligations of the Inter-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a bilateral agreement banning the testing of ballistic missiles of a certain range. But if a ‘flexible’, a-la-carte approach is to be permissible under the drug control regime when it suits the US, why should that not apply here?

Why not other important international agreements that matter to so many such asenvironmental protocols setting specific targets, or human rights law and its vital protections? Following the second pillar to the extent the US suggests is a very slippery slope.

The shift to regulated cannabis markets in the US should open the space for a much-needed discussion of treaty reform. The problem at hand is not the treaty breach by the US; the problem is the drug control treaty system itself. Preparations have started for a UN summit on drugs in 2016, the first in almost twenty years, and where a conversation about treaty reform should begin. The Brownfield doctrine is part of US efforts to keep it off the agenda.

For governments, in an effort to avoid political controversy, the four pillars may seem attractive. For those who support drug policy reform they may seem progressive. But this is no win for drug policy reform or progress towards policies grounded in evidence and human rights. To allow the US, for its own ends, to lead us into a politically calculated theatre of adherence simply serves to sustain a regime that is no longer fit for purpose. It is also harmful for the integrity of international law more broadly, from human rights, to security to the environment. The price of allowing the US to avoid its breach of the 1961 Convention, in other words, is too high. And the war on drugs has already cost too much.

 

The Long March of Ayahuasca; From the Amazon basin to UNGASS 2016

Notes on the World Ayahuasca Conference 2014

Constanza Sanchez Aviles, GDPO Research Associate & Law, Policy & Human Rights Coordinator at ICEERS Foundation

The World Ayahuasca Conference (AYA2014), held in Ibiza on September 25th-27th and organized by the ICEERS Foundation gathered more than six hundred professionals and non-professionals with an interest in this psychoactive Amazonian beverage, coming from nearly 60 different countries: shamans, psychologists and therapists, anthropologists, lawyers, doctors, drug policy experts and even some government representatives shared and enjoyed, in the symbolic and privileged environment of this Spanish island, workshops, book presentations, film screenings and conferences of the most prominent experts in the field such as Jonathan Ott, Dennis McKenna, Claudio Naranjo or Bia Labate, naming just a few of the 100 international experts that participated for this event. Renowned personalities from the drug policy arena such as Ethan Nadelmann, Amanda Fielding, Pien Metaal, Rick Doblin or Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch and many drug policy researchers and activists also attended, turning AYA2014 into a pivotal moment in the history of ayahuasca in the broader drug policy context.

Untitled1

Benjamin de Loenen, Bia Labate, Leon Garcia, Amanda Fielding, Joan Obiols and Claudio Naranjo.

For hundreds of years, Amazonian indigenous societies have been using ayahuasca to facilitate the physical and psychological health of the individual as well as the community. However, Western societies are in general repressive and intolerant towards the potential of plants with psychoactive properties, mistakenly interpreting their use as destructive and addictive, even though they are increasingly being recognized for their potential role in psychotherapeutic processes and the improvement of interpersonal relations.

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive beverage composed of two plants, Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis, the latter of which contains DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine), a controlled substance under the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances (Schedule I) and therefore under most national drug legislations. However, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the quasi-judicial monitoring body for the implementation of the United Nations international drug control conventions, has specifically stated that ayahuasca and similar botanicals that contain psychoactive alkaloids that are included in the 1971 convention are not under international control, unlike coca, opium poppies or cannabis.

During the past few decades, ayahuasca use has spread beyond its native Amazonian context; the globalization has facilitated the cultural interchange between indigenous and occidental practices leading to a globalized interest in traditional ceremonial use, therapeutic use and religious use of ayahuasca. Brazilian churches like the Santo Daime or the União do Vegetal, which incorporate the ritual use of ayahuasca in their practices, have settled in an increasing number of countries, along with indigenous healers as well as occidental practitioners offering ayahuasca sessions to a broader interested public. Particularly in the last five years, collectives and individuals involved in these practices have suffered stigmatization and legal prosecution in the US, and many parts of Europe and South America. These prosecutions included respected indigenous leaders such as Taita Juan Bautista Agreda (also present at AYA2014) who was arrested in Texas in 2010, and released later on, members of Santo Daime and UDV in the UK, Spain, Netherlands, US, Italy, Belgium and Germany, and Western practitioners working with ayahuasca in therapeutic or spiritual practices, such as the arrest of members of the Argentinean center Emilio, Manto Wasi in Chile, and over 50 cases in Spain, Portugal, UK, Belgium, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Germany.

At the end of 2009 ICEERS became involved in the defense of the court case of Manto Wasi Center in Chile and made a request to the INCB on March 2010 to clarify the legal status of plants and preparations containing DMT. On June 2010, the INCB response confirmed that “no plant or decoction containing DMT, including ayahuasca is currently under international control”. However, the Board added that some countries may have decided to apply control measures to the use and trade of ayahuasca, due to the “serious health risks” that the use of this preparation carries[1]. In fact, the experience suggests the interpretation of the 1971 Convention has not been uniform among individual States, which have had the final decision in regulating ayahuasca use within their own territories.

The challenge faced by lawyers and policy-makers comes, on the one hand, from the fact that the religious and ritual use of ayahuasca has spread at the global level but resists traditional conceptualizations and categorizations of illegal drug “abuse” that has determined drug policy formulation. Ayahuasca has a long history of use as a medicine, sacrament and ‘plant teacher’, categories that do not fit into contemporary drug policy frames[2]. On the other hand, the presence of ayahuasca religions is forcing some States to balance the respect for these groups against their international commitments within the worldwide “war on drugs”, namely to balance Western perceptions of drug use with the evolving use of ayahuasca[3].

Untitled2

Taita Juan Bautista Agreda, Kajuyali and Sia Kaxinawa.

This ambiguous situation has generated considerable confusion surrounding the categorization of ayahuasca and the assessment of the potential risks of its use in the context of what are considered “reasonably safe and socially controlled ritual contexts”[4]. For instance, ayahuasca has been considered an ‘emerging drug’ by the Clinical Committee for the Spanish National Plan on Drugs and categorized as a ‘plant-origin drug of abuse’[5]. The INCB, rather than providing clarity, has contributed to this lack of understanding noting that there exist an apparent “interest in the recreational use of such plant materials” which are “often used outside of their original socio-economic context to exploit substance abusers”[6]. Two years later, the INCB referred to ayahuasca as one of “the most commonly sold new psychoactive substances” through the Internet, apparently encouraged by a lack of clarity concerning the control status of the plants at the national and the international level and exploited by “drug trafficking networks and online retailers, resulting in increased trade, use and abuse of these plant materials in many countries”[7].

However, epidemiological and scientific evidence available on the use of ayahuasca and its consequences do not seem to be in line with INCB statements. In contrast, ICEERS’ Ayahuasca Scientific Literature Compilation[8] and Technical Report on Ayahuasca[9] seem to point in the opposite direction. Moreover, scientific research points towards ayahuasca’s beneficial effects on addiction[10], cognitive functions[11] and depression[12]. The court case of Manto Wasi in Chile even concluded that ayahuasca had been beneficial for the participants of the sessions and the latest case in Catalonia concluded similarly to ICEERS’ Technical Report that there is no scientific proof of ayahuasca being a harmful substance.

Furthermore, in some Latin American countries (Brazil, Peru) ayahuasca religions and traditional practices are recognized as cultural heritage and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007 includes the right of indigenous people “to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals” (Article 24).

Therefore, considering the ritual and therapeutic use of ayahuasca to be similar to the problematic use of controlled drugs like opiates, cocaine or methamphetamine, or considering that this psychoactive preparation is inserted in drug trafficking networks and illegal markets, is misinformed, not evidence-based, and contribute to generate confusion around the legality and legitimacy of these practices.

The grey zone in which ayahuasca is located nowadays encouraged ICEERS to give the legal and political issues a prominent place within AYA2014. The conference was intended to be a space for joint reflection and discussion, building a bridge between ayahuasca churches legal strategists such as Santo Daime and União do Vegetal, lawyers that have defended ayahuasca cases worldwide and drug policy researchers and activists.

In order to support this endeavor, the first meeting of the so-called Ibiza Expert Committee for Regularization of Psychoactive Ethnobotanicals took place within the Conference, intended to be a starting point for a multi-faceted international campaign aimed at rightful, justified, regulated, professionally managed use of psychoactive plants for individual and social benefit.

In addition to the need for assistance in the context of legal ambiguity in which ayahuasca unfolds today, ICEERS also is committed to foster a change of scenario. Particularly, its intention is to fight INCB attempts to control traditional plants. In this sense, learning from the experience of other substances such as cannabis and coca for the defense of ayahuasca, within a context of drug policy evaluation and reform is essential. Therefore, perhaps one of the main achievements of AYA2014 has been to “introduce” ayahuasca to drug policy activists and professionals. And vice versa: to introduce to the ayahuasca community the political strategies being developed for other substances in different contexts. Building a solid networking and political strategy for psychoactive plants vis-a-vis UNGASS 2016 could be a good starting point.



[1] The fax sent to ICEERS by the INCB in 2010 is available by request at info@iceers.org.

[2] Kenneth W. Tupper, “The globalization of ayahuasca: Harm reduction or benefit maximization?”, International Journal of Drug Policy, 19 (2008) 297–303.

[3] Beatriz Caiuby Labatea & Kevin Feeney, “Ayahuasca and the process of regulation in Brazil and internationally: Implications and challenges”, International Journal of Drug Policy, 23 (2012), 54– 161.

[4] Statement on ayahuasca, International Journal of Drug Policy, 23 (2012) 173-175.

[5] Mainly referring to ectopic uses in religious rites far from the places of origin, as peyote users in the United States or ayahuasca shamanic groups of the Santo Daime Church in Madrid. See Comisión Clínica de la Delegación del Gobierno para el Plan Nacional sobre Drogas, “Drogas Emergentes”, available at http://www.pnsd.msc.es/Categoria2/publica/pdf/InformeDrogasEmergentes.pdf

[6] INCB Annual Report, 2010, par. 286.

[7] INCB Annual Report 2012, par. 329-330.

[9] Also available by request at info@iceers.org.

[10] Thomas G, Lucas P, Capler NR, Tupper KW, Martin G. 2013. Ayahuasca-assisted therapy for addiction: results from a preliminary observational study in Canada. Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 6 (1):30-42; Bouso, JC y Riba, J. 2014. Ayahuasca and the Treatment of Drug Addiction, in Labate, B y Cavnar, C (eds). The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca. Springer.

[11] Bouso JC, González D, Fondevila S, Cutchet M, Fernández X, Ribeiro Barbosa PC, Alcázar-Córcoles MÁ, Araújo WS, Barbanoj MJ, Fábregas JM, Riba J. 2012. Personality, psychopathology, life attitudes and neuropsychological performance among ritual users of Ayahuasca: a longitudinal study. PLoS One.; 7 (8):e42421. Available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0042421.

[12] Osório,F., Sanchez, R., Macedo, L et al. (in press). Antidepressant effects of a single dose of ayahuasca in patients with recurrent depression: a preliminary report. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria.

SPP Prof. Julia Buxton Highlights the Great Disconnect Between Drugs and Development

This post was originally published here by the School of Public Policy at the Central European University.

Julia Buxton, Professor of Comparative Politics at the School of Public Policy (SPP), outlined key conclusions from her forthcoming report on the relationship between drugs and development in a stimulating faculty research presentation on Thursday, October 16. “Drugs are a development issue,” emphasized Buxton, “and this needs to be recognized by development actors.” The report, Drugs and Development: The Great Disconnect, will be published by Global Drug Policy Observatory at Swansea University as part of a portfolio of work that is being prepared ahead of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016.

Buxton analyzed United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) alternative development (AD) projects. Since UN endorsement in 1998, these projects have become a counter to traditional law enforcement strategies of drug crop eradication and drug interdiction. She highlighted multiple UNODC failings that have resulted in a 36% increase in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013, an increase that is even more shocking given the more than $7.5 billion that has been spent in counter narcotics efforts. Some of the examples of failed efforts include the use of generic AD approaches across regions and communities, a lack of pre- and post-project monitoring and evaluation, a dearth of development experts on staff, the absence of development and human security metrics (with AD projects evaluated only on the basis of short-term drug supply reduction targets), and, most crucially, the failure of AD to target the poorest of the poor and identify motivations for engagement in drug crop cultivation. Ultimately, “Alternative development is unworkable within the framework of drug criminalization, a focus on the sources of drugs, and ongoing militarized enforcement,” asserted Buxton, all of which serves to drive up the price of illicit drugs and the incentives to participate in supply.

Citing “profound institutional sclerosis” in the UNODC, Buxton asked how alternative development can be successful if the end goal is drug prohibition. “The more the UNODC is involved in alternative development, the more it risks doing more harm than good,” she argued. According to Buxton, drug policy and also the drug policy reform lobby pay too much attention to raw narcotics (opium poppy and coca leaf) rather than synthetics such as MDMA and amphetamines manufactured in the Global North. This underlines the bias in the international drug control model and the risk of further problematic interventions that exacerbate rather than alleviate poverty and insecurity in drug crop cultivating regions.

Ultimately it is development and not law and order factors that enable drug crop cultivation. As such, Buxton concluded, drug crop cultivation should be the concern of the development community and NGOs. Unfortunately, development actors often treat drugs as a taboo subject preferring that they be handled within the portfolio of law enforcement. This works against the achievement of development objectives, with counter narcotics responses generating violence while distorting security priorities and democratic systems.

Watch Buxton discuss her latest research on drugs as a development issue here.

Pushing Treaty Limits?

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This post was originally published here.

Suppose the United States government helps to negotiate, and subsequently champions, certain framework treaties–ones justly viewed as imposing significant constraints on all signatories. Down the road, the United States occasionally even calls out counterparties for their looser policy innovations, when the latter push the outer boundaries of what’s permitted under the treaties; a treaty-created monitoring body does likewise in its annual reporting. This pattern essentially holds year in and year out and from one presidential administration to the next.

But then the facts on the ground change radically. History shifts course. Unforeseen challenges arise. Some quite unprecedented changes insist upon–in the view of the executive branch–a more flexible approach, one in visible tension with the treaties’ express (and now seemingly outdated) language.  The United States claims that instruments once thought to be airtight are in fact rather capacious, and that the treaties build in enough discretion to permit states parties to decide, unilaterally, how best to further the accords’ larger aims. This in turn permits the United States to oppose any calls to revisit the treaties, and to avoid the messy, uncertain business of international negotiation and (shudder) eventually winning Senate approval.

Here’s a Lawfare thought experiment: what’s the body of law in play here? And what’s the policy shift now confronting that law?

As to the law: I refer of course to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as amended by the 1972 Protocol; the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances; and the 1988 Convention Against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (the treaty compliance body, established by the 1961 Convention, is the International Narcotics Control Board, or “INCB”).  Policy-wise, I have in mind the legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana by Colorado and Washington State—and that development’s conditional tolerance by the United States, in its enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act.

These are the subjects of a recent Brookings paper I co-authored with John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America.  The piece’s title is “Marijuana Legalization is an Opportunity to Modernize International Drug Treaties.”  Here’s the gist:

If indeed Colorado and Washington do presage fundamental changes in U.S. marijuana law and policy, then the United States’ stance regarding its drug-control treaty obligations will need to measure up to the requirements of international law. The U.S. assertion of its treaty compliance on the basis of “flexible interpretation” can be questioned. The International Narcotics Control Board (“INCB” or the “Board”)—a body charged with monitoring drug-treaty compliance and assisting governments in upholding their obligations—has already made clear its view that the United States is now in contravention. If more U.S. states opt to legalize marijuana, the gap between the facts on the ground in the United States and the treaties’ proscriptions will become ever wider. The greater the gap, the greater the risk of sharper condemnation from the INCB; criticism or remedial action by drug-treaty partners and other nations; and rebukes (or, worse, shrugs) from countries that the United States seeks to call out for violating the drug treaties or other international agreements. It is a path the United States—with its strong interest in international institutions and the rule of law—should tread with great caution.

The United States therefore should begin, now, to explore options that would better align its evolving domestic approach to marijuana with its international commitments. To be clear, this essay advances no claim about the desirability of legalizing and regulating marijuana. Indeed, the logic of our argument does not hinge upon one’s views as to the wisdom of legalizing marijuana, but instead upon recognizing that legalization has become a plausible  scenario for the United States. Nor do we call for immediate, drastic treaty reforms or endorse particular approaches over others. Rather, our ambition in these pages is more modest: to encourage policy makers to rule treaty reform in as an option, rather than presumptively ruling it out.

 

 

Need Versus Greed: the Complex Nature of Opium Farming in the North East of India

This blog was written by Romesh Bhattacharji, former Narcotics Commissioner of India, founding member of the Institute of Narcotics Studies and Analysis (INSA) and GDPO Technical Advisor

During the shooting of the film Raw Opium in March 2009 I was interviewed in a poor man’s steep and low yielding opium field in Kadong village of Anjaw district in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, India. The village is a good three hours uphill march from a motorable mountain road. I was overwhelmed by the unrelenting misery that I saw amongst the poor who cultivate opium mainly for their own use and barter the small surplus for essentials like utensils and kerosene oil. Faced with such abysmal poverty and the continuing brutal living conditions, I was so sad and swamped by waves of ineffective empathy that I forgot to highlight the fact that there are both rich and poor cultivators.  As soon as I saw the finished film a year later I realised that I ought to have distinguished between those that farm on account of need and those that are producing poppies commercially.

poor man's opium field on a steep hill side (photo: Romesh Bhattacharji)

A poor man’s opium field on a steep hill side (photo: Romesh Bhattacharji)

Within a year of filming Raw Opium in Arunachal Pradesh, some ex-narcocrats got together to form a think tank – the Institute for Narcotics Studies and Analysis (INSA) – to analyse the drug laws and consequential problems in India. I helped plan a survey that would quantify as precisely as possible opium cultivation and its use in Anjaw and Lohit districts in Arunachal Pradesh, a border state in the North East of India.

The actual survey, carried out by young college students from opium cultivating families, found that a few rich farmers (less than 15%) produced the large majority of the opium. It was noted that the villages close to the road cultivated opium on a commercial scale, while those away from the road (especially in Anjaw district) did so only to provide marginal subsistence and support their addiction. The wealthier farmers have benefited the most from development programmes including financial subsidies for businesses and agriculture such as orange orchards and cardamom plantations, help with marketing their products, interest free loans, free school and college education and free electricity, as well as large-scale government investment in infrastructure projects such as dams, all weather roads, hospitals and schools, employment schemes and health care.    

The rich farmers, who were once poor themselves, have  properties all over the region and are now able to send their children away to be educated to become engineers, bureaucrats, businessmen, doctors, professors, politicians and so on. The poor opium cultivators now hope that one day roads will reach their villages so that they can also become rich by growing opium on a commercial scale. It should be noted however, that many villages reported that they are ready to give up opium cultivation if a viable agricultural alternative is available.

Approximately 95% of villages in Anjaw and 89% of villages in Lohit district had opium addicts: the total number of addicts was almost 11,000 in number in both the districts (largely males but also about a 1000 females). In both districts there were addicts as young as 15 years old. Very few addicts received treatment but a number of them – almost 1600 addicts – were interested in the possibility of treatment. Unfortunately most of the villages did not have any health care facilities nor were there any community efforts in this direction.  It should be noted that whilst locally grown opium is sometimes used for medicinal and ritual purposes, it is increasingly used to support addiction.

A line has to be drawn between greed and need. Those in the former category are selling opium to neighbouring states, to new and old users, and for conversion to heroin. Such cultivators deserve the full brunt of efficient eradication and jail. Those that are poor often grow the opium for their own use and therefore deserve to be given access to opium via the now defunct Opium Registry.  The Government of India set up the Opium Registry in 1971 whereby registered opium users received doctor-certified dosages of opium from government stores.  At the beginning of the programme there were about 300,000 people enrolled on the programme. More than forty years later, less than a handful are alive to benefit from it and new users are not added to the programme.  All over India there are at least 2 million opium users. They get their doses from illicit cultivation and from diversion from licit opium cultivation.  

It is my belief that the Opium Registry should be revived on order to curb opium cultivation. If the opium user/cultivator is given opium by the government he or she will not need to cultivate it. Opium fields could then be eradicated without endangering any one’s health.  In 1999, whilst Narcotics Commissioner, I recommended that the Government of India revive the system but the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) objected, and the idea was dropped. In 2004 the National Drug Dependence Treatment Centre (NDDTC) of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi held a workshop where this topic was discussed further, but nothing came of it.    

I have been monitoring the plight of the poor opium cultivators since my first visit to the region in January 1987. More than two score visits followed. Until 2003, as Narcotics Commissioner of India, I used to help eradicate illicit opium fields in these parts and elsewhere in India. In India it is still being done as tenderly as possible: no one is arrested and in the operations I participated in, a little would be left for personal use. 

The local government administrators in the late 1980s and early 1990s thought that development and eradication would wean the cultivators away from opium cultivation. It did for a while and the opium available for sale decreased. By the end of the 1990s there were only small cultivators. There were a few large fields but these were collectively cultivated by entire villages. By the end of the 1990s opium cultivation was down to a few hectares in these two districts. However in recent years things have changed and now poppy cultivation is in the thousands of hectares.

The young were initially against opium cultivation but their elders would not listen as they required it for their own use. Development did improve the lives of some villages: electricity and computers have reached wherever the roads have gone, where people once had to walk for days to get to the district headquarters, there are now many buses and taxis and privately owned vehicles plying the roads round the clock; where earlier most people were poorly clothed, they are now dressed in jeans and warm jackets and the young now deliver opium on expensive motorbikes; previously everyone in the district lived off the land, many now have different occupations. In the past they were reluctant to leave their homes and families as they would have no news from their families for months but now they have mobile phones and computers which have helped them leave their homes for employment all over the country.

However despite these improvements in living standards for some, poverty is still rampant in the region and poppy growth is on the rise once again.  As has been mentioned above, now those who have gained from the improvements in infrastructure have turned to farming opium for commercial use rather than in order to survive.

Time for UN to open up dialogue on drug policy reform and end counter-productive blame-game

tni-gdpoAs the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) launched its annual report on Tuesday, 4 March, amidst an unprecedented crisis in the international drug control regime, leading drug policy reform experts have called on the INCB and related UN institutions to urgently open up a constructive dialogue on international drug policy reform.

Approval of legally regulated cannabis markets in the states of Colorado and Washington and in Uruguay have caused breaches in the UN drug control regime and shakes the foundations of the prohibitionist “Vienna consensus” that has dominated international drug policy for several decades.

Yet rather than seek to learn from or understand the growing political support for alternative drug policies, the UN drug apparatus – and particularly the INCB – has responded mainly with shortsighted hostility and narrow-minded rejectionism. It has refused to countenance any reforms, treating the set of conventions like a perfect immutable constitution rather than a negotiated settlement that needs reforming and modernising as science advances or political and social conditions change. This came to a head recently, when Raymond Yans, President of the INCB denounced Uruguay’s “pirate attitude” for its cannabis regulation laws, causing a diplomatic uproar and raising questions about his position.

A forthcoming report by the Transnational Institute and the Global Drug Policy Observatory to be released in the advance of high-level UN drug policy meetings in Vienna in mid March 2014, tells the hidden story of how the inclusion of cannabis in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs as a psychoactive drug with “particularly dangerous properties” was the result of dubious political compromises, questionable decision-making procedures and with little scientific backing.

Growing numbers of countries such as the Netherlands and Spain, but also states in the U.S. and India have shown discomfort with the UN drug control treaty regime through soft defections, stretching the inbuilt legal flexibility to sometimes questionable limits. The regulated cannabis markets in Uruguay, Washington and Colorado however are clear breaches with the treaty, and mean that a discussion on the need for fundamental reform of the UN drug control system can no longer be avoided.

Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute said,

“We are at a tipping point now as increasing numbers of nations realise that cannabis prohibition has failed to reduce its use, filled prisons with young people, increased violence and fuelled the rise of organised crime. As nations like Uruguay pioneer new approaches, we need the UN to open up an honest dialogue on the strengths and weaknesses of the treaty system rather than close their eyes and indulge in blame games. The moral high-ground that Yans claims in name of the Board to condemn such “misguided” policies, are completely out of place and unacceptable.” 

Dave Bewley-Taylor of the Global Drug Policy Observatory said,

“For many years, countries have stretched the UN drug control conventions to their legal limits, particularly around the use of cannabis.  Now that the cracks have reached the point of treaty breach, we need a serious discussion about how to reform international drug conventions to better protect people’s health, safety and human rights.  Reform won’t be easy, but the question facing the international community today is no longer whether there is a need to reassess and modernise the UN drug control system, but rather when and how.” 

 

‘The Dilemmas of Drug Policy: Global to local’

On Wednesday 19th February GDPO hosted a film screening of ‘Raw Opium: Pain, Pleasure, Profits’ followed by a panel discussion ‘The Dilemmas of Drug Policy: Global to local’.

Raw Opium-300-q90The film itself follows the trade in opium/heroin from a poppy growing region of India, over the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border and on to Vancouver’s supervised injection site – Insite – to Portugal’s drug dissuasion committees.  There are largely insightful interviews with poppy growers in Arunachal Pradesh, India, a UNDOC enforcement officer on the Tajik-Afghan border, a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officer, the former Indian Narcotics Commissioner Romesh Bhattacharji (and GDPO Technical Advisor) as well as members of the Insite team, Gabor Mate (a doctor who works in Vancouver with problematic drug users), and Portuguese street workers who offer support and food to drug users on the streets.  It also talks to some of those that use the supervised injection site in Vancouver about why they started using drugs and what Insite means to them.  The film is a powerful exploration of the local and global impacts of the trade.

Building upon many of the issues raised within the film, the accompanying panel discussion explored global nature of the illicit market in heroin and other controlled drugs as an area of public policy concern.

Panel members:

Julia Buxton (Chair)  GDPO Senior Research Officer and Professor of Comparative Politics, School of Public Policy at the Central European University, Budapest

Baroness Molly Meacher  Chair, All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Drug Policy Reform

Ifor Glyn  Chief Executive, SANDS Cymru

Mike Trace  Chief Executive, The Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust (RAPt), Chair, International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) steering group, former Deputy UK Anti-Drug Coordinator

David Bewley-Taylor  GDPO Director and Professor of International Relations and Public Policy, Swansea University

Kicking off the discussion, Professor Bewley-Taylor emphasised the global nature of the heroin/opium trade.  In this regard, he noted that in 2012-13 there had been a 36% rise in opium production in Afghanistan and that poppies are now being grown in provinces that had previously been designated ‘poppy-free.  He also pointed out that after full ‘Transition’ at the end of 2014, the security situation is likely to worsen with a consequence being that poppy production will continue to increase.  Despite a range of complexities and uncertainties concerning the opium market, any increase in production in Afghanistan may well result in a decrease in price and an increase in purity of heroin on the streets of the UK.

This may have a direct impact upon the heroin markets in Swansea.  On a local level, it was noted by Ifor Glyn that the city has a growing problem with heroin use.  Twenty years ago there was very little heroin use in Swansea and the surrounding area.  Today it is one of the main drugs used by clients at SANDS CYMRU.  This seems to be part of a broader principality-wide situation, with an estimated 17,000 problematic drug users in Wales.  In response, since devolution,  the Welsh Assembly Government has become more innovative regarding drug policy and has invested £32 million into the issue area.  The Advisory Panel on Substance Misuse – the Welsh version of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – has recognised that there is a need for drug consumption rooms like the Insite facility shown in the film.  They have also looked into heroin prescription similar to the model used in Switzerland.  On this point, Baroness Meacher noted that the Swiss model provides a wide range of support services from heroin maintenance to counselling and housing support. She also pointed out that it is estimated that for every 1 Swiss Franc (CHF) spent on this programme, the tax payer is saved CHF2.

Whilst the Welsh government has not instituted drug consumption rooms or heroin maintenance as yet, they are considering new approaches to drug policy.  Public Health Wales has set up a government-funded drug testing service – the Wedinos project – where people can have their ‘legal highs’ (or Novel Psychoactive Substances) tested to find out what substances they contain.  It aims to give individual users rapid and accurate information to reduce harms associated with drug use.

On national level issues, Baroness Meacher highlighted that UK Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, has ‘come out’ in favour of a review of the UK Misuse of Drugs Act  but that Labour and the Conservatives are still resistant to change.  Panel members concurred that politicians often do not engage with drug policy reform because there is a fear that being supportive of decriminalisation or legalisation can be politically damaging.  For example, at the 2002 Home Affairs Select Committee (of which David Cameron was a member) it was agreed that it was necessary to review the MDA.  Cameron supported this but when he became Prime Minister, he jettisoned this proposal.

In response to a question from the audience asking why drug policy is not simply left to the ‘experts’, Baroness Meacher noted that in the UK policy is driven by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) and therefore the only people who can change this are politicians.  Scientists, such as members of the ACMD, do their best but are often ignored.  A recent example of this was UK Home Secretary Theresa May’s announcement that the drug khat would become a banned substance against the ACMD’s advice.  You can read more about the ban on the khat trade in GDPO’s Situation Analysis – The UK khat ban: Likely adverse consequences.

On the international level, it seems that rhetorically at least, there has been a shift in emphasis from criminalisation to a more public health orientated approach.  There has been a recognition in much of the world that punishment shouldn’t be a tool of demand reduction.  The UN is holding a special session (UNGASS) on drug policy in 2016 and, as outlined by Mike Trace, diplomats are currently trying to agree on a Joint Ministerial Statement (JMS) that will set the scene for the UNGASS, as well as recording member states’ views of progress towards the goals set at the UN Political Declaration on drugs in 2009.  It is becoming clear, however, that there is little consensus around the issue.    According to Mike Trace states involved in the JMS process can be broadly divided into three camps:

  • Reformers – e.g. Latin American states such as Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala
  • Re-balancers – e.g. European nations who agree that drug policy should be health-based rather than criminal justice-based.
  • Defenders – usually authoritarian countries e.g. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan.  For these countries the War on Drugs is handy for pacifying citizens.

Member states will attend the annual Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting in Vienna in March for a ‘High-Level Segment’ in order to finalise the Join Ministerial Statement.  But, as yet, there is little agreement on what it should contain. 

Another area of discussion centred on drug policy reform and the relationship between support at the government level and public opinion.

In many countries public opinion on drug policy is way ahead of the politicians.  Mike Trace noted that in the US public support in favour of legalisation has shot up in recent years and now hovers around the 60% mark.  As a result of this jump in public support, more and more US politicians are coming out in favour of cannabis reform particularly since the voter initiatives in Washington and Colorado in 2012.

A Gallup poll produced last October shows how support for legalisation has changed over time.

marijuana-legalization-support-gallup-poll

The situation is somewhat different in the UK where there is no option for voter-driven referendums. However, Mike Trace noted that within 24 hours of an online campaign run by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Avaaz hitting 100,000 signatures, all three main political parties became more eager to discuss the issue.  It seems that even in the UK politicians are becoming aware that the public mood might be shifting.