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Drug Policy Reform Is Breaking Through at the International Level

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Change is in the air ... But the pace could be quickened a bit.

While the international policymaking body on drugs has long been stuck in neutral, there are signs that alternative voices are finally breaking through. This year's UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs featured some progress though its modest advances are only remarkable by comparison to a dismal past.

The first time I attended the CND was in 2003. I had just come in from Thailand where there were horrifying reports of extrajudicial killings being committed in the name of the government's "war on drugs."

Human Rights Watch later wrote: 'the government crackdown has resulted in the unexplained killing of more than 2,000 persons, the arbitrary arrest or blacklisting of several thousand more, and the endorsement of extreme violence by government officials at the highest levels.'

But these events never elicited a single breath at CND.

Even as the then-United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Asma Jahangir, expressed "deep concern" over these reports, nothing was said at the CND in Vienna.

Instead the gathering consisted of consecutive days of government boasts on how well they are attacking the supply and demand of illicit drugs.

At the time, I was gobsmacked by the tone of the debate.

In my experience at the UN General Assembly's Special Session on AIDS, just two years earlier, we did not encounter the level of bias nor reverence for a regime as we did in drug policy discussions. Statements made by national delegations at the CND, however, typically revealed a chilling lack of knowledge on drugs and international standards. Worst of all, these assertions went unchallenged.

Who, after all, was there to hold them to account?

In 2003, the international drug control debate took place inside a state-centric vacuum. There was an absence of alternative voices and contempt for any view that did not conform to a single minded obsession with abstinence from use of any drug (even those offered by physicians to treat dependencies).

Hence some international bodies lodged withering criticism against safe consumption facilities and even methadone, now an essential medicine of the WHO.

Ten years later, while many governments hold firm to the same old failed policies, there is a shift in the uniformity of the debate.

More governments are breaking from the pack and express concern that the system is not succeeding. Forward-looking governments are standing up and demanding that we count the costs of current policies.

And, in a willfully unresponsive environment, civil society organizations are fighting to have their voices heard.

In 2003, when Open Society Foundations organized its first side event at the CND, there was barely any vocal support for alternative policies or even criticism of obvious failures.

We now see dozens of organizations representing a variety of viewpoints.

Reform-minded NGOs are taking an active role (if mostly on the margins), and while they certainly are not welcomed by all, some governments are keen on including them in the international policymaking process.

In 2003, this gathering of governments was shrouded in opacity that made it secretive in fact, if not by design. Now civil society groups energetically live-tweet during discussions and an online web journal, CND Blog, updates regularly throughout the week.

The sad fact is that the process is still far from perfect.

The CND is a self-congratulatory remnant of the old UN. Many of its members seem stuck on the drug war rhetoric of the 1999s. It remains too buffered from external realities and the pace of change does not match the urgency. It is certainly too slow for the millions in jails and prisons, the hundreds of thousands arbitrarily detained and the many millions more suffering from entirely preventable health crises.

Beyond the immediate emergencies there is also an additional danger to international political sluggishness.

Change is happening. Alternative models are being introduced and leaders are demanding an international debate.

This year, the Organization of American States will make drug policy a key feature of its General Assembly. And the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs in 2016 which will (we hope) trace the first steps toward a new international approach to drugs.

While the roles are still being defined, there will likely be some function for the CND in this process. And it is certainly troubling that this body seems so woefully out of touch when it is needed most.

Unless, CND gets with the times, we will have a 2016 debate in an institution stuck in the 1990s.

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