Drug Policy Gumbo
Report from the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, New Orleans.
Gumbo is a soup or stew originating in Lousiana. It’s a special mixture of vegetables, meat and spices, it can be made in different styles (e.g. Creol and Cajun), it is a byproduct of the meeting of various European, African and American cultural traditions. Gumbo is one of the symbols of New Orleans, the capital of Louisiana, which is located at the crossroads of geographic regions and civilizations, a town which synergizes religions and cultures. The Big Easy – as Americans call it – hosted the 20th biannual conference of the Drug Policy Alliance, the leading drug policy reform organization of the United States. As a local organizer pointed out, the conference itself aimed to create a big drug policy gumbo: gathering people from various parts of the world, with various backgrounds, ideologies, faiths, prejudices and interests. Liberals, conservatives and libertarians, black and white, researchers and activists, pot smokers and heroine injectors, elderly and young, law enforcement officials and hippies, sex workers and clergymen. There is only one thing which makes these folks allies, claims Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the DPA: they all want to put an end to the futile war on drugs, which costs so many lives and tax payer dollars every year. And this eclectic movement is growing rapidly: this year we could witness an unprecedented number of participants and a very broad agenda which satisfied the interests of harm reduction pragmatists and marijuana enthusiasts as well.
This year the conference was co-organized by many other US drug reform organizations, such as the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). The International Network of Drug Users (INPUD) also organized a side event with many participants from the North-American user movement. There were more than 50 breakout sessions, covering various issues from overdose prevention to entheogens science. There was a workshop on harm reduction therapy, which attracted many professionals and activists. Participants could also enjoy thought-provoking movies on the harmful consequences of the war on drugs at the film festival. A European Roundtable Discussion presented the major trends in drug policy in Europe, where Sofie Pinkham (OSI-IHRD) introduces to the audience the situation in Russia and Ukraine, while Peter Sarosi (HCLU) spoke about advocacy campaigns in Hungary. There was a very interesting session on heroin prescription, where we were updated about the latest results of heroin trials in the Netherlands and Canada. Promising news came from Denmark, where the government committed itself to introduce heroin prescription for hundreds of addicts in 2008. At the session on race and drug war we could learn how devastating impacts the war on drugs has on Afro-American communities, and how difficult is to mobilize community leaders to speak up against it because of the double stigma. Participants could also go for a guided tour to the flooded areas of New Orleans, where the destruction of the Hurricane Katrina is still visible: many people are still homeless and live in poverty because of the neglect of government. Most of them are Afro-Americans, who also suffer from racial profiling and ill-proportioned imprisonment rates as a direct consequence of the war on drugs.
One of the most interesting panels of the conference was a public debate between Antonio-Maria Costa, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the czar of the global drug control regime and Kasia-Malinowska Sempruch, director of the International Harm Reduction Development Program of the Open Society Institute (OSI). The audience appreciated the curage of Dr. Costa to face a huge crowd of people hostile to the very principles of his work. He acknowledged that the drug free world – a slogan of the General Assembly of the UN in 1998 – is not a realistic goal. He claimed that neither he nor any official UN documents have ever used this term. He introduced a new magic word: containment. Comparing to the harms done by licit drugs like tobacco or alcohol, the harms and abuse of illicit drugs remained low and isolated, Costa said, and this is due to the efforts of the global drug control system, which contained the illicit drug problem in a managable level. As an economist he agreed with the argument of the legalizers that prohibition creates a lucrative black market for criminals which creates violence and public health harms. However, he said, drug problem is not solely an economic issue, and the state has a duty to protect the society from the harms of drugs. He called the audience to „be more radical” and go beyond harm reduction as simply providing needles and substitution. The participants expressed their disagrement during his speech, but the atmosphere was not hostile, rather cheerful. Responding to Costa’s speech, Kasia-Malinowska Sempruch pointed out in her presentation that there is a direct, causal relation between repressive law enforcement policies – based on the UN drug conventions and supported by UNODC’s funding – and deteriorating public health conditions, especially the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. The simple medicalization of the problem is misleading, because many governments apply coercive, ineffective measures as „treatment”, especially in Asia, where labour camps are often masked as treatment centers. In the former Soviet countries most drug users have access to low quality inpatient treatment in closed hospital wards only, where their human rights are systematically violated. Even if there is a massive increase in substitution treatment in China, the centers are under close police control and they are not attractive for drug users, therefore it is a matter of great concern that the experiment with methadone will not be succesful in the country, and this may have negative impacts on the acceptance of substitution treatment all around Asia – said Kasia. She called for cooperation from all sides to improve the access to and quality of services for drug users – this was applauded by Mr. Costa as well.
After the panel there was a Questions & Answers session where prominent drug policy experts like Craig Reinarmen, Pat O’hare, Martin Jelsma and Alex Wodak commented on Costa’s speech. They argued that the present course of UN drug policy is proved to be a failure and there are best practices in the local level which show that there are effective alternatives to current prohibition. For example the Netherlands, where the adult population has quasi-legal access to cannabis, but the prevalence rates of cannabis use are relatively low in Europe. Nanna Gotfredsen, head of the Koppenhagen- based NGO Street Lawyers invited Mr. Costa to spend some time in her town, where the „refuges of Swedish drug policy” seek help from services which are not available for them in Sweden. She called Mr. Costa to „abandon his Swedish fantasies” about a drug free society. However, Costa lost his patience in this session and slipped from answering directly to the questions and challanges. He claimed Swedish drug policy to be a success model and he said „the Netherlands is poisoning the rest Europe”.
There was an interesting session on alternatives to prohibition, where scholars discussed the possible ways, modalities and mechanisms of legal regulation of mind altering substances. There is a great diversity of possibilites. Free market regulation is actually supported by a small minority, the majority is in favour of strict limitation of supply and a ban on advertising and selling to underage persons. Speakers emphasized there are many best practices from the regulation of other commodities like alcohol, tobacco and food – these can show how to minimalize effectively the harms caused by drugs in a legalized market.
At the closing session Sam Sullivan, the mayor of Vancouver had a speech in which he described the new developments of harm reduction policies in his town. Mr. Sullivan said drug addiction is neither a criminal/moral nor a medical issue – but it is a management issue, which is similar to physical disabilites. He said as a young man he took high risks with skiing and he became quadriplegic. He got support from the community, he got wheelchair, medications and care. However, his highschool friend, Robert, who took different risks with illegal drugs and became a drug addicted person, did not get any support but he was jailed. Mr. Sullivan said he doesn’t see the moral difference between the two risk taking behaviors, only that Robert didn’t risk the lives of other people with using drugs while he did with irresponsible skiing. Heroine addicts need substitution treatment just as he needs his wheelchair. They are not sick, but they have a management problem which helps them to be functional members of society.
The Norman E. Zinberg Award for Achievement in the Field of Medicine this year was awarded to Kasia-Malinowska Sempruch, acknowledging her tireless work for scaling up science-based services for IDUs all around the world.
Hungarian Civil Liberties Union