03/18/08 - Doug McVay

Doug McVay, director of research for Common Sense for Drug Policy and editor of Drug War Facts reports from Vienna, Austria on the 51st annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs with Boaz Wachtel, executive director of the Green Leaf Party of Israel, Richard Elliott, Executive Director, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Eric Carlin, executive director of Mentor UK and a vice chair in the VNGOC and Mike Trace, co-founder and co-coordinator of the International Drug Policy Consortium.

Program: 
Century of Lies
Date: 
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Guest: 
Doug McVay
Organization: 
Common Sense for Drug Policy
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Century of Lies, March 18, 2008

The failure of Drug War is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century of Lies.
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This is Doug McVay, director of research for Common Sense for Drug Policy and editor of Drug War Facts. Last week I was in Vienna, Austria where I attended the 51st annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs. For the Drug Truth Network Century of Lies program, this is a special report.

The CND is the central policy-making body for the UN in drug related matters. The CND monitors the implementation of the three international drug control conventions and is empowered to consider all matters pertaining to the aim of the conventions, including the scheduling of substances to be brought under international control.

There have been a number of exciting developments on the international scene. I was fortunate to speak with some of the principal players.

Let's start with some good news from the middle east. Boaz Wachtel is the executive director of the Green Leaf Party which is a serious national political party in Israel. I spoke with him at a conference sponsored by the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies, held
immediately prior to the CND meeting as an opportunity for anti-prohibition organizations to voice their opposition to global drug war. Let's listen as Boaz tells us the good news about Israel:

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Boaz Wachtel: My name is Boaz Wachtel, founder of the Green Leaf Party in Israel, which is a party for the legalization of cannabis, for human rights and the environment. The last elections we got 1.4 percent of the national vote. Yes. And we were ahead of maybe 18 other parties that were behind us. Maybe 30 parties ran for the Knesset. We were established in 1999, we ran three election campaigns.

What I wanted to do was to teach politicians that cannabis legalization and environmental issues have electoral value. And as a result of our work we saw a shift and change in other parties who were in the Knesset in their attitudes toward cannabis and in order to attract voters but you cannot ignore 1.4 percent of the the voters. There’s going to be a shift now in Israeli drug policy. It’s going to be a quiet shift, not by law, but they’re going to downgrade cannabis enforcement to a low level of enforcement. Yes. And that’s the latest news I have from the head of the anti-drug authority in Israel, that has just quit his job.

The reason is the failure of prohibitionist policies to lower demand and supply of cannabis because of clogging of courts, the involvement of too many policemen and judges and jail officers with cannabis offenders. And so eventually the cycle, as they say in Yiddish, they got their brains together and they are making this change.

One of the problems of drug policy activists around the world is that they live in a separate information loop than decision makers.

The decision makers are exposed to a certain Swedish, or NIDA, or UN information loop that supports their prohibitionist policies and we believe that our role was in order to create change was to educate these ignorant guys or girls or women and bring the harm reduction information loop into their lives and they seem to be interested in what’s happening in the field, they seem to be wanting to hear the voices of drug users and drug users’ organizations and slowly, slowly they are digesting and the shift from total prohibition and the zero-tolerance model into the harm reduction model that is taking place now in Israel, which includes needle exchange of a federal level, on a government level.

Now the municipality of Tel Aviv talking about distribution of heroin so there’s a paradigm shift away from American dominated policies of prohibition into the European more dominated harm reduction policies.

Doug Mcvay: Let me back up for a moment, because it just struck me, just so we get the numbers right, tell me again now, how many parties altogether in Israel running on the national level for Knesset?

Boaz Wachtel: There are 52 registered parties and roughly in each election there may be 30 of them all running. Yes. And the threshold to give into Israeli politics, which of course is different than American politics, is two and a half percent of the votes, of national vote, gets you three members in the Knesset which is 120, they have 120 members in the Knesset.

So it’s a different system. It’s much more open to small parties, yes, because it’s two and a half percent, it used to be one percent and they push it up all the time but you can create change not just through the electoral system that we try to do it in Israel, we do a lot of media work, we try to educate doctors about medical cannabis, we have now in Israel able to get a medical cannabis program place.

We have a license from the Ministry of Health to grow, now it’s 250 plants and we’re in the summer, when we grow outdoors, we’re going to have a license to grow 1,000 plants. We’re serving maybe right now, with our 160 patients with licenses to possess and consume cannabis and it’s actually given away free.

We are able to give it away free, and with the help of Rick Doblin from MAPS and other donors, we are able to stem separation, and at some point when we will have a good manufacturing process, a GNP product, the medical grade cannabis like they have in Holland, like a company called Marathon (?) has that level of quality of cannabis, then they would allow us to sell it to the patients because it’s a medical grade cannabis.

When I went to the government representing an AIDS patient and I said ‘He has a basic human right to access the medicine that he knows it helps him.’ They said that I’ve a very important door, yes, but a controversial door and if we want to find a solution for the medical cannabis program, find a solution that doesn’t cost the government anything. Yes. Stingy government.

So we worked out this solution over time and it started very slow but activist work is very (*). It takes a very long time and important things also take a long time so we are in a position now that Israel as a government sponsored, not sponsored, but approved program so it makes it one of three or four countries around the world, Holland, where they have two growers, licensed growers, in Canada and in the United States, of course there are a few States that allow the sale of medical cannabis so we are very pleased to be part of this progressive approach to allow access for sick people for medical cannabis.

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Doug McVay: Now we turn from the nation of Israel to the United Nations.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Narcotics. That session began a decade-long concerted international campaign against drug use. Now the UN begins a year of reflection and review on the international drug control regime. I'm going to let Richard Elliott tell you more.

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Richard Elliott: I’m Richard Elliott, I’m the Executive Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. We’re a human rights and AIDS organization so our job is to actually promote the human rights of people living with HIV and people vulnerable to HIV and so that necessarily means working on issues of drug policy because we need to respect and protect and fulfill the rights of people who use drugs if you want to actually effectively respond to HIV amongst people who use drugs.

Doug McVay: How long have you been involved with this process here with the United Nations?

Richard Elliott: Only a few months. We do work on international legal issues and so we have necessarily done work on the international drug control conventions and various UN bodies that are set up to administer and enforce, discuss them so last year we put out a report that was quite critical of the International Narcotics Control Board for its damaging approach to its mandate which actually undermines public health and human rights including in the context of the AIDS epidemic.

We’ve certainly written material in the past that tries to put human rights issues on the agenda of the UN’s drug control agencies. This is my first time at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs so it’s a bit of an eye-opener. My impression of this event is that it’s a part of the UN that is little understood by most people. It doesn’t attract that much attention and is not particularly open or receptive to NGOs and outside input. It’s a very closed shop kind of place although I’m given to understand that this year actually we’ve seen a number of indicators of improvement. There are actually statements that have been made yesterday and hopefully today by NGOs in the formal sessions which apparently has not happened before so maybe there’s some openness happening there.

We’ve seen a few statements from some of the high level officials that are involved in the UN drug control regime that suggest a certain openness, albeit limited, to sort of basic human rights issues like the concern about imposing the death penalty on people for drug offenses. I think there’s a long way still to go and certainly more openness to NGO participation and more transparency of the work of the UN’s drug control regime would probably help create more attention to human rights issues.

Doug McVay: So overall the NGO participation, you think, has been positive in this thing?

Richard Elliott: Well I think it depends on which NGOs we’re talking about. There are NGOs who I think are not particularly evidence-based or principled in their approaches to these questions. I don’t know that that’s really a positive contribution. I think there are a number of NGOs whose objective is to push an ideology that is often unscientific rather than actually be willing to confront some of the realities, some of the facts about the impact of prohibition and the drug war on public health, on human rights. Yes, so it’s a mixed bag.

Doug McVay: Where do you see this going? Where do you hope these things are going to go?

Richard Elliott: I think within the next year as this year long process of review and reflection on the drug regime proceeds, organizations that care about the human rights of people who use drugs, those people are most directly affected by that regime, and people that care about the impact of that regime on public health, such as on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, needs to get more organized.

We need to have a clearer plan about how we make sure those issues remain on the agenda, in fact to more attention on the agenda, that we’re in the rooms when things are being said that are factually incorrect or that misrepresent what international law is or what it allows countries to do in terms of trying to deal with drugs and related health issues in a more sensible humane kind of way, so that I think really needs to be our plan for the next year and we’ll see what comes at the end of that.

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Dean Becker: You are listening to a special edition of the Century of Lies program on the Drug Truth Network. Our good friend, Doug McVay, who brings us ‘The Drug War Facts’ on a pretty much weekly basis was in Vienna, Austria attending the Non-Governmental Convention and he had a chance to talk with several members from around the world about the need for change and what these countries are doing in that regard.

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Doug McVay: Nongovernmental organizations from around the globe have been involved in a consultative process in order to provide the UN a civil society assessment of drug control policies and their impacts as well as estimates of needs. This process is officially titled the Vienna Non Governmental Organization Committee on Narcotic Drugs, which has a homepage at VNGOC.org.

Input by civil society could be a terrific step forward in improving the international drug control process. This however depends on the quality and the independence of the advice which the CND receives. On Wednesday morning of last week's CND meeting, NGOs were treated to a day-long side session during which reports from the regional consultations which the VNGOC held were to be presented. The delegates were still in session so this was primarily for the NGOs. At the end of the day I spoke with Eric Carlin, executive director of Mentor UK and a vice chair in the VNGOC, to get his thoughts:

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Eric Carlin: I’m Eric Carlin. I’m Chief Executive of Mentor UK which is part of the international Mentor Foundation. What we’re interested in doing in the UK and internationally is trying to understand what make people get into difficulties with drugs and to try to prevent that happening in the first place or to intervene before it becomes serious and we do that in a non-moralistic, non-judgmental way and we try to do it an evidence based way. I’m also one of the Vice Chairs of the Vienna Non-Governmental Committee on Narcotic Drugs. So I’m working at the UN a lot as well.

Doug McVay: Tell me your impressions of this conference.

Eric Carlin: Well, I’ve been really involved with organizing the Vienna 2008 Forum, I’ve been at the European Regional Forum and I’ve been at the (*) Regional Forum and I think that we’ve actually got a lot of consensus in relation to, we think that drugs cause problems and I think that we’ve managed to past the situation where we are constantly always just talked about the issues that divides those who are very, I guess what you call harm-reductionists and those who are very protectionist and that falls down however I think when you get to the North American situation where, and presentation has in relation to the North American discussion, it’s a bit depressing.

Doug McVay: None of my listeners will have heard that. What in particular?

Eric Carlin: Well, I think, I said let me talk about my organization, we’re interested in developing therapies and approaches are based on evidence within what they were talking about, they were talking about specifically, introducing random drug testing in schools. Now, from my organization’s experience, we know that random drug testing is more likely to drive the most vulnerable young people out of schools, more likely to have them on the streets, more likely to have them out of education and of opportunities for prevention activities and more likely to get into difficulties with drugs.

Now, in terms of evidence based, how can you argue that for an evidence based approach while advocating random drug testing? It doesn’t make sense. Is that clear enough?

Doug McVay: Very, very much.

Eric Carlin: Clearly there are problems with how drug policy is being implemented because we still have an awful lot of people whose lives have been destroyed by drugs or had the situation where they are accessing drugs. That’s why it’s really important to come and learn from each other and listen to each other but not, certainly not, to talk about wanting evidence based policy when actually what you want is a politically driven policy.

Doug McVay: Where from here?

Eric Carlin: I think we just need to keep on pushing this. I mean what has been good for me, I come from a different situation from a lot of people, and my current job is focusing on prevention. Young people might treat this job as very modest because I am for harm reduction. I’ve managed needle exchange services, (*) services, treatment services for drug users who were living on the streets. Now I see no conflict whatsoever between having those harm reduction approaches and actually accepting as valid that you don’t really want eight-year-olds doing drugs. Where’s the conflict?

Doug McVay: Exactly.

Eric Carlin: And we also need to have a bit more respect for each other and stop positioning in ways that we say that people who are on the other side, they want children to use drugs. I don’t believe anyone wants children to use drugs.

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Indeed. Drug policy reforms cover a broad range of issues. They include expansion of treatment capacity and access to treatment on demand including substitution treatment; promotion of effective prevention programs appropriately targeting specific population groups; and development of direct outreach and nonjudgmental harm reduction programs to manage the risks of substance use.

I like to save the best for last and this is probably the most exciting news from this week. Drug policy reforms cover a broad range of issues. Around the world, a number of civil society organizations have been coming together to promote progressive drug control policies within the accepted framework of the international conventions. In just two years of work, this group -- the International Drug Policy Consortium -- has developed relationships with 50 or 60 governments around the world and continues to expand. Here's Mike Trace, co-founder and co-coordinator of the IDPC:

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Mike Trace: Ok, My name is Mike Trace. I’m the Chair of the International Drug Policy Consortium.

Doug McVay: Tell me about the Consortium.

Mike Trace: It’s a network of NGOs from around the world. We’ve got members in all the regions of the world who try to work on drug policy issues at the macro-level. We engage with governments and the international agencies to try to promote effective and balanced and humane drug policies.

Doug McVay: Fantastic. You’ve been together for how long?

Mike Trace: Two years. We established in late 2005, early 2006 and it was a coming together of a lot of NGO networks and professional networks around the world who already knew each other but we wanted a vehicle that we could speak with one voice to particularly the United Nations but also national governments and brand our advocacy and our proposals through a recognizable group.

Doug McVay: Tell me about your advocacy and some of your proposals.

Mike Trace: We generally position ourself as a relatively moderate group. Most of us have either worked for governments or advised governments in times past so we do try to talk to governments in their own language, so we’re definitely a constructive and supportive NGO structure.

But it’s not difficult in international drug policy to find things that aren’t working or aren’t particularly impressive so we have a whole host or areas where we’re pointing out to governments the deficiencies in what they’re doing and we come forward with recommendations on how they could have more humane and effective policies.

Some examples that we are particularly working on in 2008 is that we produced reports on human rights and drug policy. This is an area that hasn’t had an awful lot of attention in the international debate. We’ve just produced a report on it and found eleven areas where, what various governments do around the world infringing human rights standards. So there’s a big issue there.

We’ve got a lot of work to do to talk to governments about how they may resolve those problems. We also deal with some of the bureaucratic issues, some of the problems in global drug policy are not driven necessarily by politics, they’re driven by institutional structures and in the UN system, at the moment, the way that the drug policy regime is formatted is actually very negative, it’s very law enforcement focused, very prohibition focused.

Whatever you may think about prohibition this is not a very effective way to organize your business. Most of us in national governments are very balanced, cost cutting strategy where health, human services, law enforcement, foreign affairs, they all work together to have a coordinated strategy.

In the UN system it’s all dominated by law enforcement so there needs to be institutional reforms. So that’s another area of our attention. We promote harm reduction, we’re a very clear harm reductionist network, the idea that the best way to respond to HIV problems is to promote public health responses rather than law enforcement responses and public health responses do include needle exchange, they do include support for people to use drugs safely.

That is a hot issue internationally, many parts of the world are totally comfortable with that concept, some countries aren’t. We promote it unequivocally. We also look at law enforcement practice and we’re very clear on our analysis of the global research is that widespread arrest and incarceration of drug users is not an effective policy and we produce the evidence and we talk to governments about why they should not be pursuing policies of that type.

We don’t have a particular position on law reform, different situations in different parts of the world, but we do know that strong investment of tax payers’ money in arresting drug users is not a sensible policy.

Doug McVay: Are you seeing real progress?

Mike Trace: We’re quite encouraged. We’ve only been on this for two years. There’s all sorts of histories and geopolitics and dynamics about progress but on certain fronts we are very encouraged. First front we talked about is the idea of balanced drug policies.

Ten years ago, when I was working in the UK government, balanced drug policy was an interesting new idea. Now, it’s pretty much the basis of drug policy in many countries. And many other countries haven’t traveled that road but it is, the numbers game is changing. I’d say that basically half of the UN member states now talk about balances, harm reduction based policies.

In the UN debates, you know, we used to have the American model and the American diplomatic corp won every argument and that was up until a few years ago. Now they struggle to find friends for their position. So I see that as progress. The progress on other things, up until a few years ago a harm reduction approach to HIV prevention was still a very difficult issue for the UN system. Now it is the agreed position.

So things are changing a lot. So the UN, now, (*) what say the UN five years ago, actively resisted the implementation of things like needle exchange in areas of the world where there were high injecting populations, the UN now proactively has programs to encourage needle exchange. So that’s a turn around. That’s a big turn around, it makes a difference to millions of peoples’ live.

Doug McVay: That’s huge and that’s a direct slap in the face to the U.S. which is still discouraging needle exchange.

Mike Trace: The U.S. has consistently discouraged that. They have, to some extent, acknowledged that the rest of the world wants to go in this direction and they’ve backed off a bit, but yeah, the main barrier to this change has been the U.S. government’s position.

There are other areas of progress, just the fact that governments that have been very uncomfortable with engaging with civil society on drugs issues because they assume that every NGO is a legalizing body and is going to ask them to legalize drugs.

The level of respect and engagement between NGOs and governments in this field has been awful for many years in many countries but definitely in the UN. Now we see, the meeting we’re at, at this week, is the NGOs are part of the furniture.

We’re sitting with governments, we’re discussing things, we’re making recommendations, those recommendations are being accepted. This is good engagement. This is grown up politics. So that’s a big progress. When I was working in government in these meetings the NGOs were left outside the building, not even allowed inside the building but it’s come a long way.

Doug McVay: Tell us something. Pull a few items off of your CV for my listeners.

Mike Trace: I wouldn’t want to over emphasize just myself. Many members of our network used to be people who were responsible for policy in their respective governments, yeah. But for my own example, I was the Deputy Drug Czar for the UK from ‘97 to 2002 so when, for this U.S. audience, you have Barry McCaffrey as your Drug Czar I was the UK equivalent.

So I have had, I’ve been right in there, writing drug policies, engaging with the political process on this issue but I also, I was the Chair of the European Union’s drug agency for three years so I was the top guy in Europe for three years and I had a very short stint working for the United Nations drug policy regime so I have been involved in the real difficult battles within governmental circles.

And for me, and colleagues who’ve done that, it helps you to understand the parameters and difficulties that officials face. It doesn’t mean to say we let them off the hook but you understand the situations they have to work within.

And it helps you propose constructive solutions to their problems, that they’re very receptive to, because a lot of these guys they share a lot of these wishes to go for more humane and open policies, they don’t know how to do it. They need help.

Doug McVay: After this, what?

Mike Trace: Well I’m focusing most of our network’s work on just creating a mechanism for NGOs to speak constructively and responsibly with governments and we’re pretty much there. But we just have to continue creating this credibility and these lines of communication.

We’ll be using those lines of communications to focus very much on the 2009 meeting where as when the international community gets together again and decides the next ten years of the global drug control system. That is a big event and that is a big decision making point. So we’ll be focusing a lot of resources on that.

That’s going to take place in March, 2009. We’re already working with dozens of governments around the world to push them towards progressive positions in that meeting and they’re being very receptive. Some are being very receptive.

Some of the issues we’re going to push on is embedding harm reduction, is embedding the idea that enforcement doesn’t solve drug problems, embedding the idea that human rights should be an absolute basic prerequisite for any drug control activities and various other themes of work. We are trying to understand this week, with the 190 governments here this week, we’re trying to understand what the mood is, what the issues are they want to talk about and where they want our help. So once we’ve digested what happens this week we have a year to influence what happens.

Doug McVay: I am honored to have finally met you. Thank you.

Reporting from Vienna for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay,
editor of Drug War Facts dot org.

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Dean Becker: Well, I want to thank Doug McVay for that excellent report from Vienna, Austria and the goings-on of the United Nations in regards to this eternal war on the people of Earth. Please tune into this week’s Cultural Baggage show, our guest will be Jim Hightower. He’s got a new book “Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow.” Our Friends of LEAP effort to contact local officials here in the city of the mothership is going OK. We don’t have any of the Sheriff or District Attorney candidates lined up for an interview as yet.

Again I remind you there is no truth, justice, logic, scientific fact, medical data, in fact no reason for this drug war to exist. We’ve been duped. The drug lords run both sides of this equation. Please do your part to end this madness. Visit our website, EndProhibition.Org.

Prohibido istac evilesco.

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition.

The Century of Lies. This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.

Here are links to the websites for this week's guests:

Boaz Wachtel, Israeli Green Leaf Party: http://ale-yarok.org.il/english/
Mike Trace, International Drug Policy Consortium: http://www.idpc.info/
Richard Elliott, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network: http://www.aidslaw.ca/
Eric Carlin, Mentor UK: http://www.mentorfoundation.org/uk/
David Turner, Vienna NonGovernmental Organization Committee on Narcotic Drugs: http://www.vngoc.org/

And of course, websites for yours truly Doug McVay, Director of Research at Common Sense for Drug Policy and Editor of Drug War Facts: http://www.csdp.org/ and http://www.drugwarfacts.org/

Thanks. I hope you enjoyed listening.

Doug

Transcript provided by Gee-Whiz Transcripts. Email: glenncg@zoominternet.net