Is too much discussion on regulation making us forget prohibition?

Reflections on the 9th Conference of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy

By Constanza Sánchez Avilés, ICEERS Foundation and GDPO Research Associate

From 20 to 22 May, the beautiful city of Ghent hosted the 9th Annual Conference of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy (ISSDP), an excellent opportunity for researchers, activists and professionals in the field to catch up on recent developments in drug research and policies. These annual meetings have become unrivaled, very stimulating occasions to present original scientific works, creating spaces for discussion and debate on methods and results and promoting networking and collaboration among researchers from all over the world. This year’s event was organized by Prof. Tom Decorte and his team at the University of Ghent, who hosted a wide variety of participants in terms of geographical origin and professional and ideological backgrounds, a variety that generated interesting presentations, exchanges and -in some cases, heated- debates. Cannabis occupied a particularly prominent place in the Conference, despite discussions round other issues such as illicit markets dynamics, harm reduction strategies or African and Asian national drug policies. Throughout the three days, eight parallel sessions took place, each of them including three or four panels of several presentations. There also were three plenaries featuring keynote speakers like Virginia Berridge, Tim Rhodes and Ludwig Kraus, and three post-conference workshops focused on research methods, the Dutch cannabis model and the potential uses of research for drug policy reform endeavors. The offer was so broad that most of the time it was hard to decide which session to attend. The session ‘Cannabis policies’ included two presentations on Spanish drug policy, something not very common in this type of event which are generally more centered on US and Anglo-Saxon and, to a lesser extent, Northern European concerns and insights. An important reason for this is the growing interests on the cannabis social club (CSC) model that has emerged in Spain during the last few years and whose recent developments are awakening attention beyond Spanish borders. Many curious researchers attending the Conference approached the hall to learn a bit more about how this CSC model operates and the recent proposals for regulation having arisen at the municipal and regional levels. ICEERS participated in this session with a presentation entitled ‘Cannabis Clubs: The Politics of Cannabis Policy in Spain’. Our intention was to present an overview on the different regulatory processes that are taking place at the different levels of government in Spain, intended to manage the expansion of CSC, which are generating irreconcilable contradictions between local and regional entities and the central government. The reason that led us to make this presentation was that, curiously, while from outside our own borders we hear about the “CSC Spanish model”, from the inside is not clear at all whether this model will survive, or not. The Czech economist Vendula Belackova, one of the few researchers from outside Spain who has studied the phenomenon of cannabis associations here, presented the main findings of her investigation, based on interviews with members of Spanish CSC aimed to assess their role in minimizing the risks of cannabis use. Vendula’s vision focused on the multiple positive contributions that cannabis associations have had for users and for advancing the demands of the Spanish cannabis movement. It was pleasant to hear these positive aspects, which are sometimes hard to remember within a context of police interventions, political struggles and government obstacles. The session on CSC concluded with the contributions of the Uruguayan researchers Rosario Queirolo and Maria Fernanda Boidi, who explained the details of the emerging phenomenon of cannabis associations in Uruguay and how they are legally regulated. It was striking to find out how wide and detailed CSC regulation is in Uruguay -a country where barely a dozen of them are registered- while in Spain almost one thousand of these associations exist, and regulation is limited, insufficient and contradictory. As noted, despite cannabis’ prominence, other issues where discussed in Ghent as well. The Mexican researcher Laura Atuesta, from CIDE Drug Policy Program in Aguascalientes, presented a fascinating work on ‘narcomantas’ (narco-messages), increasingly utilized by ‘drug cartels’ in Mexico, which leave them close to the bodies of people executed. Through the study of how these groups communicate and behave, Laura explained the characteristics and recent evolution of Mexican drug trafficking organizations: territorial presence, violence methods and diversification of activities. During the same session, entitled ‘Organized Crime’, other studies focused on estimating the size, characteristics and organization of illicit drug markets were also presented. These works were conducted through innovative and original research techniques like interviews with people imprisoned for drug trafficking offenses. Jonathan Caulkins explained how the cocaine market in Italy is highly structured and organized, where three or four transactions separate users from large importers in contact with foreign networks, and in which retailers retain a large portion of the profits. Instead, the heroin market seems much less tidy, and operators often jump between wholesale and retail level. As mentioned above, there was much discussion on cannabis, and a lot on its regulation. Might it be too much for the political stage we still live in? Or are we, the people working for drug policy reform, falling into a trap? My impression from this last ISSDP Conference, shared by some other participants, was that a bit too much attention was given to regulation and related technical issues -such as percentages of THC that should be permitted, assessment of regulatory experiences that are being in place only a few months, or cannabis access model in regulated markets. All of these are very important issues of course. But perhaps putting too much emphasis on technical issues is moving the most substantive policy issues to a less prominent place within the debate. In particular, a more solid critique of prohibitionism was missing -with the exception of a few sessions such as “European drug policies and international reforms”, which included the participation of Alex Stevens (University of Kent) and Ann Fordham (IDPC). And, I would suggest, it was missed because we are living times of drug policy change, eevn though this change has not yet been crystalized. It is important not to forget that in most countries regulation is not a reality. What prevails is prohibition, repression and human rights abuses in the name of drug control. Leaving this aside, the conference was a fascinating experience. It’s hard to imagine a more interesting group of experts sharing impressions, and a more charming place than the city of Ghent for discussing drug policy issues and facing the future with a fresh outlook. And, its always nice to return home with a renowed sense of enthusiasm; something so vital in our efforts to champion evidence and rights based drug policies.