Global drug policy may be about to undergo a major shift — if the United Nations has the courage and foresight to accept the recommendations of a recent forum it convened.

Last week, I was one of 300 delegates from non-government organisations from around the world who met in Vienna for a forum of NGOs assisting a review of UN drug policy.

It was an historic meeting because it marked the first time that NGOs have been allowed any involvement in determining the drug policy of the UN system.

The meeting approved a document calling for a major shift in global drug policy. Specific recommendations included:

  • the UN to report on the collateral consequences of the current criminal justice-based approach to drugs
  • recognition that harm reduction is a necessary and worthwhile response to drug use
  • a shift in primary emphasis from interdiction to treatment and prevention
  • promotion of alternatives to incarceration
  • the provision of development aid to farmers before eradication of coca or opium crops.
  • recognition of human rights abuses against people who use drugs
  • support for evidence-based drug policy focused on mitigation of short-term and long-term harms
  • full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • the inclusion of all affected and stigmatised populations in policy determination

This NGO document will now be considered by meetings of member states, and the review process will be concluded by a high level UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting in March 2009.

It became clear at last week’s meeting that the US is likely to prove a major obstacle to progress on the forum’s recommendations. But it also became clear that the US groups taking a hard-line stance against harm minimisation were in a minority — both within their own country but especially in the international community.

Although 20% of all delegates were from the US, only a minority reflected the hard-line views of the US government. Ms June Sivilli from the US Drug Czar’s office appeared to be directing the interventions of these extremist and often mean-spirited US delegates.

The flagrant involvement of a government official in the operation of this NGO conference breached the meeting’s rationale. Some US-based anti-drug delegates intervened frequently to obstruct and delay proceedings, reject any suggestion that current drug policies cause any harm, oppose references in the text to ‘harm reduction’ or participation of people who use drugs in the policy making process.

Eight of the nine reports from regional consultations with NGOs supported harm reduction. The only dissent from this perspective was one of the two North American reports. Probably more than three-quarters of all 300 delegates supported harm reduction.

The processes of this meeting were clearly not perfect. With 18 delegates from Australia and New Zealand, and only one from China and a handful from India, the forum was hardly representative.

Developing countries were severely under represented and non-English speaking delegates had a difficult time. The problems of farmers producing opium and coca, often also victims of current policy, were barely considered. But these negatives were outweighed by the many positives of this process and meeting.

One significant negative from an Australian perspective was the embarrassing intervention by Mr Gary Christian representing Drug Free Australia. He had been involved in the process for many months without making any complaint. Just moments before the closing ceremony was due to begin, Mr Christian began to read a long speech criticising the processes.

A UN review of global drug policy is long overdue. In 1988 the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in New York assembled under the slogan “a drug free world — we can do it!” Since then, global heroin production has increased by 102% and cocaine production by 20%.

It’s time global drug policy moved towards more effective approaches based upon evidence and a harm reduction framework.