Transform, in collaboration with the International Drug Policy Consortium organised the Tuesday plenary session at this year's International Harm Reduction conference in Liverpool, titled 'The Next Generation of Drug Policy: Decriminalisation and Beyond'. The Session was chaired by John Ashton, and the presentation abstracts are copied below (full program available here in pdf). Transform's contribution made the front cover of today's conference report (see below), with Alex Steven's presentation on Portuguese decriminalisation also covered on page 6. When the video of the session is available online we will add a link here.
Shift of paradigm in drug-related public policies in the Argentine Republic and Latin American countries
- Presnted by Martín Acuña: High Court judge and Ministerial advisory board on Narcotics member, Argentina
Argentina, like all the other Latin American countries, has adhered to the 1961, 1971 and 1988 United Nations Conventions on drugs and the subsequent laws that have been passed reflect this by penalising possession of drugs for personal use and imposing heavy penalties for drug trafficking and even micro-traffic. This enforcement- focused approach to drug control has placed a heavy burden on the judicial system and the high incarceration rates for drug-related offences have led to prison overcrowding.
To address the negative consequences of prohibition, many countries in Latin America have enacted a series of laws to discriminalise the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use: Brazil (2006), Chile (2005), Paraguay (1988), Uruguay (1998), Mexico (2009). Argentina’s and Colombia’s Supreme Courts have recently followed suit in the cases of “Arriola” and “Bastidas” 2009, respectively.
The Argentinian goverment’s decision, translated at an international level into the United Nations (51st session, March 2008), advocating a paradigm shift in drug policy towards greater emphasis on access to the health care and respect for the drug user’s dignity and basic human rights. At a national level the shift led to the establishment of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Drugs, aimed at developing drug-related programmes from a public health perspective, and pursuing reform of domestic and international drug control systems in line with the international conventions on human rights.
The committee’s calls for reform highlighted the need to ensure access to health care as the central focus of any drug policy, as well as critiquing the failure of the current drug policy on supply control and demand reduction indicators. This critique demonstrated in particular the futility of enforcement efforts which disproportionately focused on low-level users and small-scale dealers.
Decriminalisation: pushing the limits of drug control
- Presented by Genevieve Harris from Release/IDPC,
- Originally to be presented by Ann Fordham from IDPC, who was unable to attend because of the volcano flight disruption.
Almost all nations are currently members of the global drug prohibition regime. This operates via a UN-based treaty system comprising a suite of three international drug control conventions: the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (as amended by the 1972 Protocol), the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. The bedrock of the regime is the Single Convention. This contains a general obligation for signatory nations, subject to the provisions of the convention, to limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs. Although the prohibitionist ethos of the regime is beyond doubt, the conventions nonetheless contain a certain degree of flexibility. This presentation explores the various legal mechanisms behind such “wiggle room” and outlines how a growing number of parties to the conventions have engaged in “soft defection” from the regime’s prohibitive expectancy; a process involving interpretative strategies that keep national policies within the confines of the letter, if not the spirit, of the international legal framework.
Despite such grey areas, latitude is by no means unlimited, however. Indeed, it will be shown how, in expanding domestic policy space, many states are now at the limits of what is legally permissible within the extant regime. The presentation will also show how, while the conventions permit a degree of policy flexibility in terms of possession for personal use, there is no such scope for production and supply. This is a particularly acute point of tension as more jurisdictions adopt tolerant approaches to dealing with the recreational use of cannabis.
National strategy on drugs in Portugal: innovation and evidence
- Presented by Alex Stevens, criminologist from Kent University
- Originally to be presented by Fatima Trigueiros from the Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Portugal, who was unable to attend because of the volcano flight disruption.
In 1999, the Portuguese government approved the first national strategy on drugs, a historic turning point for drug policy. One of the measures proposed by the strategy was the decriminalisation of consumption and possession of all illicit drugs for personal use (defined as a quantity that must not exceed that needed for average individual consumption over ten days). In 2001, this was made law in Portugal. This new law meant that personal consumption and possession would no longer be considered a crime, but would constitute an administrative offence – therefore no longer carrying a penalty of imprisonment.
The main purpose of this law was to prevent and reduce drug use and to promote and protect the health and social well-being of people who use drugs and encourage them to enter treatment. Eight years later, all the available evidence and indicators suggest that the overall impact of this law has been positive – although a direct link between these results and decriminalisation cannot be assumed. Decriminalisation is one element of a comprehensive national strategy aimed at preventing drug use, facilitating access to counselling and treatment, and establishing effective measures to reduce the adverse health and social consequences of drug use.
There have been some problems and challenges in implementing the law and we intend to propose some adjustments to it in the near future, based on past experiences. The INCB orginally accused Portugal of disrespecting the UN conventions on drug control but – after two missions to Portugal – they now recognise some of the benefits of Portuguese law. The 2009 World Drug Report noted that “Portugal’s decriminalisation of drug usage in 2001 falls within the Convention parameter”.
The2009 Annual Report of the EMCDDA has also recognised that decriminalisation has not led to an increase in drug use or drug tourism in Portugal.
After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation
- Presented by Steve Rolles, Senior Policy Analyst for Transform
This presentation explores what an evidence-based drug policy, based on public health and harm reduction principles, might look like if freed from the constraints of existing absolutist prohibitions on drug production, availability and use specified by the UN drug conventions. In a post-drug-war world how might legal regulation and control of drug markets function? What would the appropriate models be for different drugs? How could they be developed and implemented?
It will be argued that legal regulation of drug markets – finding the optimum point between the extreme poles of absolute prohibition and unregulated legal commercial activity – is the rational continuation of a broader harm reduction approach; one that considers the origins of drug harms in macro policy environments, specifically the punitive enforcement approaches.
The menu of possible regulatory options for drug markets will be reviewed in summary, including potential legal controls over products, outlets, vendors, availability, premises and using environments, and purchasers, to consider how to control availability in ways that deliver the best outcomes both for users and wider society.
It will be proposed that different drugs, depending on product risk assessments and local environments, could be made available either through medical prescription models, a specialist pharmacist model, various forms of licensed sales or licensed premises, or unlicensed sales. More risky drugs would be less available, less risky drugs relatively more available, thus in the longer term progressively shepherding patterns of use towards safer drugs, preparations, behaviours and environments, in direct contrast to the harm maximising impacts of illicit drug markets. Implementation would be phased over a number of years and supported by rigorous monitoring and evaluation.
This presentation aims to broaden the harm reduction debate by providing a foundation for discussing legal drug regulation as a practical option for the next generation of drug policy development.