“A society free of drug abuse”: a dangerous and distorting fantasy

Our response to the Outcome Document endorsed and agreed today by the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in New York.

The Outcome Document entitled "Our joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem" was officially endorsed and agreed by heads of state and other representatives from member states at the first session of the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) taking place in New York this week. The document is the product of intense diplomatic negotiations conducted in Vienna last month.  And it shows. 

It’s an outcome of diplomatic horse-trading, and it’s not a document that will deliver an end to AIDS.  It reflects a set of diplomatic interests and negotiations, but we’re in the business of ending AIDS and so it’s hard to get excited about a document that manages to re-state support for key harm reduction interventions but then fails to even endorse the concept of harm reduction.   

We are pleased to see that the outcome document refers to key harm reduction interventions such as needle and syringe programmes and substitution treatment, especially when we heard that these key interventions were threatened in earlier stages of the negotiations.  But these interventions have been widely endorsed and practiced for many years, including by all key UN agencies. In reality, we were hoping for an outcome document that called for a massive scale up of harm reduction.

The outcome document calls for ‘a society free of drug abuse by 2019’.  Susie Mclean, our senior advisor on HIV and drug use who is attending UNGASS said,

This is a dangerous and distorting fantasy that prioritises the eradication of drug use above preventing disease and protecting human rights.  It’s a delusion that has appeared in previous drugs commitments and has been spectacularly unsuccessful. UNODC’s own data demonstrates that illicit drug use continues to rise.

The outcome document fails to recognise that the world has missed – by a wide margin - previous UN targets for preventing the spread of HIV amongst people who inject drugs. Faced with such devastating failure, we were hoping for an outcome of the UNGASS that re-doubled efforts to end AIDS amongst people who inject drugs.

The outcome document fails to address the many expert submissions and contributions from member states and UN agencies who call for the decriminalisation of drug use, for better human rights protections and for the scale up of harm reduction services.  Any submissions that challenged the status quo have been side-lined.

The UNGASS process has been marred by efforts to shut down dissenting voices and by the use of Kafkaesque procedures to make criticism of the current approach invisible.  Susie Mclean said,

Right up until the opening of the meeting, many civil society representatives have been shut out.  Ban Ki Moon called for ‘…an open and inclusive and wide ranging debate that is open to all options’.  This has not been our experience.  The UNGASS process has been marred by secret negotiations and by twisting processes in order to maintain the status quo.  The outcome document is sadly out of sync with the realities of getting services to people who use drugs.

But the meeting has only just started. We are hoping member states who have been shut out of the negotiations, along with civil society, will use the opportunity of these next three days of high level dialogue to voice their aspirations for something better, to push for an outcome that can truly create the conditions for ending AIDS.  So whilst the official outcome document has been stitched up and sealed in the first session, the voices for change will only grow louder.