ENCOD BULLETIN ON DRUG POLICIES IN EUROPE
NR 74 APRIL 2011
Recent events in the Arab world are showing us that when people unite, they can overturn the most powerful and repressive regimes, even in a peaceful way. Is there a chance that the “Egyptian approach” can be applied to the global drug prohibition regime? Will the work of Encod and other non-governmental actors that wish to challenge current drug control policy ever be successfull?
If the latest annual meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna should give any reliable indication on the current state of affairs in the international drug policy debate, we have no reason to be pessimistic. As Michael Krawitz, Executive Director of the US Veterans For Medical Cannabis Access put it: “The global debate on drug policy is like a giant turtle. If you stand aside and look at it, you don’t see it move. But if you go away for some time and come back, it is not in the same place”.
When Encod attended the CND meeting for the first time, in the year 1995, we clearly did not fit in the picture. The meetings were dominated by men in suits, who never questioned the Single Convention. There was almost no attention from the media, and the few NGOs who came with a critical message were considered as crank elements. For us to address the CND meeting was unthinkable, the most we could hope for would be a place in the so-called Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs, where we would be the salt in the soup of mainly prohibitionist NGOs consisting of the spouses of civil servants working at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
The current state of affairs is best characterised by the discussion on the coca leaf. In January 2011, 18 countries, among them the US, UK, France and Germany, presented an objection against the amendment proposal of the Bolivian government to the Single Convention, that traditional coca leaf consumption should no longer be prohibited. Apparently their motivation does not have anything to do with the nature of the coca leaf or its effects on human health. It is exclusively based on the importance of maintaining the « integrity » of the UN Convention. The position of these 18 countries is an implicit admission that the process of amending the text of the Convention will inevitably lead to its dismantlement. Their message to the world is that they prefer that the UN Convention be violated rather than modified or even discussed.
At this year’s CND, the most interesting debates took place in the so-called side events where a direct interaction between NGOs and governmental delegates could take place. The official meetings (Plenary Session and Committee of the Whole) did not offer any new insights and could safely be avoided. The voices representing the Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs during its meeting with new UNODC Director Yuri Fedotov were mostly those that defend harm reduction and acceptance-oriented policies towards drugs. This year’s “crank elements” were the remaining die-hard prohibitionist groups, who continue to spread messages like ‘Children need to be protected against drug legalisation”.
Of course interaction between governments and civil society does not automatically lead to mutual understanding or consensus. The following is a short summary of a conversation with François Poinsot, representative of the French government in Vienna.
Question: In 2009, France did not support the introduction of the term harm reduction in the goals of UN drug policies, do you still think that way?
Answer: France believes that harm reduction is a key element in drug policies. But we do not want to encourage use, so we will not permit safe injection rooms.
Q. Which conclusion do you draw from the fact that cannabis consumption in France is higher than in The Netherlands, where it is openly available for adults?
A. I am not sure that the low levels of consumption in the Netherlands are a result of their policies. It is true that in France cannabis is banalised. There is a contradiction between the law and reality. But the law is necessary to make prevention campaigns effective.
Q. Why has France objected to the request of the Bolivian government to amend the Single Convention in order to lift the ban on traditional coca leaf consumption?
A. We do not question the value of the coca leaf in the Andean region, but we are afraid that coca leaves will be converted into cocaine. Bolivia should present a model on how to organise a legal market for coca leaves, so we can consider it.
Q. Will there be any move in French drug policies in the coming years?
A. In France we are legalists, we like to preserve the law. But there may be tendencies that depend on the political context. Under president Chirac the medical approach was preferred, under Sarkozy the emphasis is on public safety. But the underlying message is the same : prevention.
Among other governmental delegates as well, it was difficult to observe any real conviction for the success of drug prohibition. The resolutions that were prepared by the Committee of the Whole to be approved on the last day by the Plenary Session were basically referring to technical issues. The political line of UNODC’s new Director Yuri Fedotov is unclear, but in his first public encounter with NGO’s he showed more respect than his predecessor Antonio Maria Costa.
Not even one official mention was made that this year the 50th Anniversary of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was celebrated. When we distributed our announcement to bury this Convention it seemed as if we expressed a feeling that was shared by most participants.
We were even allowed to address a speech to the Plenary Session, on 25 March. Delegations of more than 150 countries were listening when Encod delegate Beatriz Negrety explained the reasons why the Single Convention has ceased to be relevant: “The United Nations should start to design a new strategy to control the drug phenomenon. A strategy that is built on local experiences and scientific evidence, not on moral principles that are completely out of touch with reality. As citizens of the world who are affected and concerned by the drug issue, we urge the United Nations to replace the UN Single Convention with a global agreement that will allow individual governments to design and implement their own policies.”
In the evening of the same day a ceremony took place in front of the UN building where we cremated the Single Convention. The ashes were kept in an urn that was presented the next day at Encod’s press conference in Café Landtmann in Vienna. Here, both doctor Kurt Blaas from the Austrian Association for Cannabis as a Medicine and Michael Krawitz commented the promising developments concerning the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. These developments are facilitated not least by an increasing acceptance of this use by Western governments.
As always the most interesting developments in drug policy are the result of the initiatives of citizens: harm reduction, safe consumption rooms and cannabis social clubs have all been applied underground for some time before they were embraced as legitimate approaches. This lesson might work for the coca leaf also. It would be worthwhile to try and establish a European Coca Leaf Social Club.
Encod will continue to connect people and organisations that wish to adapt drug policies to reality, and not the other way around. The members of the Steering Committee and the Secretariat will continue to represent the organisation at the UN and EU levels, but at the same time, practical strategies for common action can be developed. The good news is that at our new head office – that is based in an old monastery in the centre of Antwerp – we will be able to organise seminars and meetings for almost no cost, including sleeping places for a number of people. This building is run by a group of artists and homeless people, so theory is combined with practice.
With Michael Krawitz from the USA, we discussed the need to exchange experiences between Cannabis Social Clubs from different continents, and elaborate a code of conduct on how to operate. So maybe later this year, we may announce the first Global Cannabis Convention of Citizens. Let’s push the turtle…
By: Joep Oomen (with the help of Peter Webster)