ENCOD BULLETIN ON DRUG POLICIES IN EUROPE
NR. 43 SEPTEMBER 2008
OUTSIDE THE BOX
The end of the summer of 2008 is a good moment to reflect on the question of how to continue our efforts as a platform of European citizens aiming to end the global war on drugs. Both the results of a questionnaire among ENCOD members, the outcome of the General Assembly in Vitoria that took place in June, and the experiences of ENCOD representative Fredrick Polak at the Beyond 2008 Forum that took place in Vienna on 7-9 July provide a reliable picture of our future opportunties to obtain a fundamental reform of drug policies.
It is quite obvious that these opportunities are limited. There is no sign anywhere in the world that a government might be preparing a significant move towards “just and effective policies on drugs”, namely, policies that would focus on health and social concerns in stead of law enforcement.
In part this is due to the neo-conservative climate that dominates the West’s political and business sectors, and their media accomplices in the so-called War on Terror. But blame can also be attributed to those who in the past ten years have tried to challenge the consensus behind the UN Drug Conventions, since they have not been able to develop a coherent strategy that people can unite around.
When in 1998 the United Nations declared that they would significantly reduce the supply and demand of drugs in the next ten years, many people were convinced of two things: this policy would prove to be one big failure, and 2008 would become a turning point in drug policy history. They were right in the first assumption, but wrong in the second. Consequently, today, many drug policy reformers find themselves divided and / or demoralised.
Even among ENCOD’s 150 members, many different voices and interests are represented, and this is one of the problems we are facing at the moment. It is clear that members generally share a feeling that although our actions and participation in official events may produce very little direct impact, they are nevertheless necessary and useful. ENCOD is seen to be the only European network that represents the voice of those who want to challenge prohibition as the main cause for drug related problems. But how can we create an effective strategy, using methods that will reliably improve the quality and visibility of our work?
At the General Assembly, we managed to formulate our strategy as “elaborating realistic proposals for just and effective policies on drugs”. These proposals are steps that both citizens and governments can take to gradually replace prohibition with policies aiming at increasing people’s health and wellbeing. They can be global, such as developing a sincere response to the claims of both cannabis, coca leaf and opium farmers in Asia, Africa or Latin America who wish to have a legal market for their products instead of being attacked or manipulated by either authorities or criminal organisations. They can also be local, such as the Cannabis Social Club model, that according to legal and logistical possibilities, could be extended to other substances as well.
But while the discussions before and during the General Assembly were sometimes focussed on issues of relatively minor importance, we failed to take some crucial decisions, such as giving concrete guidelines to Fredrick Polak who represented ENCOD at the Beyond 2008 Forum that took place in Vienna two weeks later.
The objective of the organisers of this Forum, the Committee of NGOs allied to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), seated in Vienna, was to reach consensus among approx. 300 participating NGOs for the text of a resolution intended to influence the Summit of Ministers that in March 2009 is supposed to approve a “new” global strategy on drugs for the coming (10, 20, 25?) years.
In order to attend the meeting, NGOs were supposed to go through a complicated bureaucratic process and of course collect the money to pay the travel and accomodation expenses of their representatives. This made it difficult if not impossible for grassroots organisations to attend the meeting. Consequently the large majority of organisations present in Vienna were in fact financed by governments or private institutions that are either supporting the UN drug conventions or at least willing to accept them as legitimate. Almost nobody present in the room was directly defending the interests of those citizens who are hardest hit by drug policies: small scale growers of prohibited plants, or consumers of prohibited substances.
Furthermore, the Forum was organised as a carbon copy of the meetings of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) that governmental delegations attend every year in March. Conclusions are decided in advance. If during the discussion it appears that two views are mutually exclusive, leaving little or no room for compromise, this leads the chair to force concessions. If that is impossible, the smallest of the contending groups is simply put under pressure to agree to some compromise. Breaking the consensus is possible, but leads to one being excluded from the group of participants that is seen as “responsible”.
Organised in this way, this kind of consultation is good for those organizations who work inside the box, i.e. whose attitude towards drug policies follows the mainstream line of thought: prohibition is a legitimate instrument to reduce “illicit” drug use, which implies all use that can not be considered medical or scientific. Within this mainstream, there may be differences that can lead to discussions on words or phrases, but the crucial issue will never be touched upon. Prohibition as a basis for drug policy is firmly held in place, and is now even rendered legitimate by a supposed “consultation” of a so-called “Civil Society”.
The Forum agreed to a final text that recognises the harmful effects of existing drug control policies and demands a complete adoption of Harm Reduction and Human Rights (HR2) principles in these policies. However, the main cause of drug related harm and human rights violations in drug policies, the fact that they are prohibited, was not even addressed.
For organizations that hope to obtain some financial or other gain from their relationship with the United Nations, this Forum was a success. However, for those organizations with a political goal, such as ENCOD and others that are formed by people who are daily affected by the failure of current policies, it is not easy to find the best way to use this kind of encounter. We are not and will never be like professional lobbyists with very little any knowledge of the reality of the daily life of people affected by these policies, or like those who – even if they have this knowledge – prefer to safeguard their personal or political interests and keep quiet when it comes to the point of taking a reality- rather than ideology-based position.
The central issue for ENCOD and its 150 organizations was, and still is, to get alternatives to prohibition on the agenda of the CND and of individual countries. Our efforts to introduce this issue in the Beyond 2008 Forum failed, mostly due to the way this forum is organised. If Fredrick Polak would have left the meeting, the rest of the participants would quite simply followed and obtained a consensus, with only us or a small group of likeminded organisations in disagreement.
Thus, the Vienna experience shows the limits of a “citizen lobby” strategy. We must continue to find our way with other actions as well, in spite of the huge opposition we are facing, in spite of the lack of resources and even political allies. The fact that we have survived since our foundation in 1993 until now may well lead to the conclusion that our organisation has an important value. At least it shows that it is possible to keep thinking outside the box in search for solutions. There are three ways of growing older: you either become wise or stubborn. But the best way is, it seems, to combine the two.
By: Joep Oomen (with the help of Peter Webster)
For a video report on the Beyond 2008 Forum see HCLU’s Drugreporter