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Report on international drug policy conference: Wilton Park

Chatham House Rules, which guide Wilton Park conferences means essentially protecting the ID of the participants. Outside of the meeting, you can talk about the contents - what was said etc, but not who said what. The idea is to enable governmental figures and others to say possibly radical things they otherwise would not.

Due to the presence of two leading UN Office of Drugs & Crime (UNODC) workers, much discussion was focused on the process of evaluation of drug policies – local, national or international. It was pointed out that this is a very difficult thing to achieve and thus so much of drug policy is still driven by ideology rather than scientifically-evaluated data. Having said that it was also strongly noted that even when data is evidence-based (as in the Eu); it depends on a) the press, as to how it is presented to the outside world and b) who chooses which parts of the evaluation to publicise. This means that caution is always essential, when making decisions about which way to go.

It was pointed out that very few countries allow for ‘independent’ reviews of their drug policies, though whatever way we look at it, most national governments now are shifting the focus to the impacts of drug policy, though even this could be value-judgement. Most importantly, on this subject it was poignantly observed that it is very “difficult to measure or evaluate properly, as we don’t have a baseline from which to measure from and to compare to.”

We were informed that the 1971 Convention came about as a result of pressure from the pharmaceutical companies.

Another speaker pointed out that countries currently compared in the World Drug report are not that useful and that she thought perhaps comparing the U.S. with Canada would be more helpful given their differing international dimensions and/or differences.

Another look at harm reduction is to see how dangerous our current social policies are – that is to look at the negative consequences of current international drug policy. Somebody, who doesn’t care for the liberalisation of any drug policy spoke to the issue of “total harm” – that it would increase if the legislation were loosened up or at least that is what is feared.

It was also noted that UNGASS could be a good opportunity to look at the guiding principles which govern global drug policy, and the making of conventions.. Later, an European delegate added to this that we also look at the values which are used to make drug policy, and that we make these tow issues the subject matter of a future Wilton Park conference in the not-too-distant-future: soon in fact! Currently, we see that the resources and focus is way too heavily on the supply-side, almost neglecting the issues of care, education, prevention (disease as well as drugs) and prevalence data.

The practitioners present agreed that addressing people’s drug problems must be done holistically and in the context within which they live, e.g. responding to a person in London may look very different from trying to help somebody in war-zones. However it was also raised that at one time (not so long ago) clean needle-exchanges were almost non-existent in Asia but now they even have ten methadone programs planned. Some think it is not a good idea to be trying to reduce harm with the thought at the back of our minds that really we want all our clients off drugs: this, after all can damage the therapeutic relationships; drug users are not stupid.

In one UNODC-funded demand reduction program in the middle-east, 90% of the workers are HIV+ and/or on methadone prescriptions. Achieving this meant making sure all the stakeholders were brought into the discussions about what to do about drugs nationally, especially locally. This means, bar no-one including police, religious leaders and/or the users themselves. In response to a question about gender, sexism and how (if) women get help, it was pointed out that many men dependent on drugs are forcefully coercing their wives to join them, but it is much harder for the women to get help in patriarchal nation states.

A newly-appointed Afghan official raised several issues including the corruption of offialdom in his country, including MPs. He also spoke to the worrying funding of terrorism through the profits of drug-traffickers. His key point was that his country’s security and (therefore economic) stability is constantly threatened by the spread of opium poppy as the main income of the country. When asked about the apparent reduction in output of opium by the Taliban, he said “whatever happens, we cannot avoid the issue of the safety and security of our country.” Partly here, he was alluding to the fact that war-lords, terrorists and others attack government posts in opium fields where “eradication policies” are being enacted. These policies are largely funded and strategically so by the U.K and U.S government.

Within the last year, the U.K National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) has collaborated with Customs and Excise amongst others to establish SOCA – the Serious Organised Crime Agency. These institutions are eager to hit drug traffickers and other smugglers where it hurts; in their wallets, so they have begun a ‘naming and shaming’ policy of money launderers, though only the U.S and the Netherlands appear to be taking this seriously at all. It was noted that one of the reasons other country’s have not taken this and other more-complicated strategies up is due to under-training of staff. However it was gleefully said … that seized assets were being used to fund drug-user support agencies, (at least in the U.K.) Other seized assets got to the treasury, who can then decide what will happen to that money..

Within this discussion the issue of sophisticated technical surveillance was raised but one political scientist present said that this had failed abysmally in Columbia, so he wasn’t sure whether it was such a good policy to enact elsewhere.

So we arrived at the last morning of the conference hardly having reviewed UNGASS at all! Thus it was decided to re-focus on that and what we might be able to achieve at UNGASS. One of the agreed components of the next UNGASS, it was said, should be the increased inclusion of Civil Society in the development of drug policy since they are often the implementers on the ground.. While the assembled gathering appeared enthusiastic about this, it is not an easy thing to achieve unless there is support from allied member states.

Some people there thought it was significant that a UN official did allude to the “fact that the tail is wagging the dog when it comes to the control of international drug traffickers… that it was a weakness … having cannabis within the confines of the conventions.” Others of course, feel the same way about coca but this was barely alluded to.


Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt MSc/Feb 2006

Last Updated before: Tue 28-Oct-2008

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