02/28/16 Doug McVay

This week: we hear a debate on global drug policy before the International Parliamentary Union, featuring Dr. Kasia Malinowska of the Open Society Institute and Professor Kevin Sabet, in preparation for the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem coming up in April.

Century of Lies
Sunday, February 28, 2016
Doug McVay
Drug War Facts
Download: Audio icon COL022816.mp3



FEBRUARY 28, 2016


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. And now, on with the show.

In April, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem will take place in New York City at UN headquarters. The UNGASS. The planning for this session has been going on for years. Civil society, nongovernmental organizations have been meeting in Vienna, in New York, and all over in order to be prepared to present the case for reform and possible repeal of the international drug control conventions. It's a process, there will be a lot more meetings, even after this UNGASS, but we're going to take a look at some of the discussion, in fact, we're going to take a look at a recent meeting, which I think crystalizes the debate that we're going to hear.

The International Parliamentary Union is actually a body that's much older than the United Nations. It was founded in 1889. The IPU is the international organization of parliaments. It's the focal point for worldwide parliamentary dialogue, works for peace and cooperation among peoples, for the firm establishment of representative democracy. It works in close cooperation with the United Nations, and earlier in February, the annual parliamentary hearing was focused on the world drug problem. It was co-organized by the IPU and the Office of the President of the General Assembly.

During that hearing, there was a debate on this motion: Implementing the international legal framework will address the world drug problem. In other words, if we just enforce the laws, everything will be okeh. The people talking in favor of that were Mr. Anti Avsan, an MP from the Parliament of Sweden, and Kevin Sabet, a social policy PhD who likes to call himself doctor. Arguing against that, we have His Excellency the Ambassador Luis Alfonso De Alba, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the International Organizations in Vienna, and Dr. Kasia Malinowska, Director of the Global Drug Policy Program at the Open Society Foundation. And the discussion will be moderated by Julia Taylor Kennedy, who is a consultant based in New York. Let's go straight to it.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: And let me start to my left, with Mr. Anti Avsan, MP, Parliament of Sweden.

ANTI AVSAN: Thank you. First of all, it is definitely clear that repressive drug policies can be combined with damage reduction efforts. Nothing stated in the UN drug conventions is preventing countries to apply a public health perspective on the problem of narcotics or helping people in different ways to leave their abuse. I would also like to underline that there is no conflict between on the one hand criminalizing the disposal and possession of drugs, or as in Sweden, decided on a total ban on individual possession and on the other hand, different efforts to help people leave their addiction and harm reduction efforts.

It is therefore not a matter of the one thing or the other, since complex issues rarely can be solved with single one-handed actions or solutions. As a basic point of view, it is important to know, which is the also the view of the UNODC and often mentioned by their representatives, that the availability of narcotics in a society is the key factor behind severe damages caused by narcotics, both on the individual level and in societies as a whole. On a society level, this availability leads to many other, much wider negative consequences, such as criminality and putting major pressure on social support systems and healthcare systems.

The consequences of a reduced volume, or in other words, reduced quantity of narcotics, is clearly reduced number of medical and societal damages caused by narcotics. It is therefore crucial to reduce the total amount of narcotics and the availability of narcotics to the greatest extent as possible. And that must be the main purpose also in a global context.

I would especially like to point out that UN drug conventions is not the problem for countries who are focusing on helping people to leave their addiction. The drug conventions should be seen as a basic framework, with the overall purpose of protecting health and welfare. Apart from restrictive and forbidding stance to narcotic, it is, as I already have mentioned, a necessity to help drug abusers. It is furthermore crucial to create major public health efforts based on scientific and social studies in order to inform the general public about the danger of drugs and the negative consequences caused by drug abuse.

The experience from Sweden is that there are less people affected where there are restrictive drug policies. And again, this standpoint is not at all contradictory to damage reduction efforts. Thank you.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Thank you. Perfect timing. Second, we have His Excellency Luis Alfonso De Alba, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the International Organizations in Vienna.

H.E. AMBASSADOR LUIS ALFONSO DE ALBA [simultaneous interpretation provided by the IPU]: Thank you very much, Julia. I'd like to start by pointing out that, if it's a question of continuing with the same policies, I don't see how we can expect different results. And I think that the results are clear. You have debated this for the last two days, efforts to approach this problem and the economic resources and in particular the human resources for the struggle or fight against drugs, is disproportionate with regard to the result. So to think that we're going to continue to do the same and achieve better results, I don't think it's correct.

Neither is it right to think that the legal framework is limited to the three conventions on drug control. I think the innovative aspect is that there is greater clarity so far as the legal framework should include other international instruments, in particular instruments for human rights. Instruments which have a much more general character, and therefore have to be taken into account when developing a policy. A policy which, I think, and this is a parenthesis I'll make, can be -- will take place in April this year with a special session of the General Assembly.

Even before the Assembly meeting, the debate has already radically changed. We have already achieved some of the goals of the exercise to review the strategy, and the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban-Ki Moon, says there should be a different balance. It's not a question of doing the same thing, it's to do so in a different way. It's not a question of stopping the organized crime alone. One of our states is doing that. All states continue to believe, and here I'm saying so because I participate actively in the negotiations in Vienna, we all participated in effort where the principals of co-accountability, co-responsibility, against organized crime.

But we have to deal with subjects which we all agree on, namely to give privilege -- give priority to the health aspect, for instance. But what I wish to emphasize, if we have the idea that the framework is much more general, it's not totally that. Human rights have to be the human rights for everyone, not just for the consumers. The victims of violence, whether it's direct or indirect, have to be helped. And the general development agendas another action which we're already committed to when we adopted Agenda 2030.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Okeh. For our second argument in favor, Mister Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute and assistant professor at the University of Florida's College of Medicine.

KEVIN SABET: Thank you. I want to thank the delegates, and it's a pleasure to be in front of you today. I think actually there is a lot of common ground with this resolution, but I think we have to be very clear about what our objectives are. I think we should think about whether or not more drugs or more -- fewer drugs are what we want in our societies. The international drug regime is not perfect, but the drug conventions that have been the, you know, stabling, stabilizing force of international drug control for over 40 years have brought with it far fewer users of illegal drugs than drugs not under international control. Five percent of the world's population used a drug recently. Compare that with the numbers of those who abuse alcohol, which is the number one killer in the world, or tobacco, which is very close to alcohol, and there is no comparison. And that's because for one set of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, we have tried miserable -- failed miserably, I would say, to implement legal regulations in the face of massive advertising, promotion, normalization, and a profit motive.

Now, on the illegal side, fewer than five percent of us use drugs. That doesn't mean that our drug policies are perfect, as I think both speakers have said. We need to do much better. But the international drug regime allows for flexibility. It's why you have a country like Singapore in the same regime as a country like Portugal. And it does allow for countries to do what is -- what are necessary, according to their local traditions, but what it does not allow is for us to treat these drugs like the legal, I would say legal killers, alcohol and tobacco that are proliferate -- proliferated around the world. We do want to have different policies. I think it's up to the member states to implement those. Drug regi -- the international drug conventions do not force member states to criminalize drug use. I personally don't think drug users should be criminalized. On the other hand, there is flexibility, and the idea that we have to change the drug control regime to accommodate a health based policy is not true.

We can all do things within the drug control regime that we see fit. And I think, you know, we really -- and I again with the last speaker I agree, can we really say that we've had a balance, in terms of the health care sector, able to fight this? Can you say that in your countries, physicians are trained in addiction? In the US, less than 20 percent of doctors are ever trained in addiction, and I don't know, I'm guessing the other countries may not be as, are probably the same.

We also know that the folks on the underground market, we know that they're going to be here even if we regulate drugs. The mining industry is legal, the logging industry is legal, there is such thing as legal immigration, and yet, the underground criminal networks continue to proliferate. There's no easy answers. But going to a regime like alcohol and tobacco would be a public health and public safety disaster. Thank you.

JULIE TAYLOR KENNEDY: Thank you. Okeh, for our final argument, against the motion, Dr. Kasia Malinowska, Director of the Global Drug Policy Program at the Open Society Foundation.

DR. KASIA MALINOWSKA: Thank you. Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here with you, and it's especially important to address you as parliamentarians, because who knows better than you about what is behind laws that you make? Clearly the intentions of the law is what drives what the law looks like at the end of the day. And so, when we talk about the drug conventions, because I think this is what we're referring to when we talk about international regulations, we should keep in mind what are the intentions of those conventions? And the intentions are clear, and they're about punitive, criminalizing set of goals, and this is the framework that has been set by countries, by your countries, to pursue as you develop your national laws.

So I think the question of whether there's flexibility, whether, whether there's contradiction between the current drug regime and harm reduction and HIV prevention, and drug treatment, is not the question that we're addressing. What we are really looking at is what are the intentions of the current drug laws, and those are punitive intentions. And I think when you think about the cost of that, those are very easy to measure. If you look at HIV epidemic among people who are drug users, if you look at people who have no access to treatment because they're afraid of the police, if you look at prisons, if you look at violence, in Mexico, in many other countries, these are direct result of the drug laws, international drug laws, that we have put in place. And those really have death penalty, death penalty for other offenses is decreasing while for drug possession, for drug trafficking, is actually increasing across the world.

So I think the intentions of the current regime are very, very clear, and I think we need to be sort of honest about how we take on those intentions. So, Kevin and others, Calix from Portugal for example spoke about their excellent, their excellent practices of decriminalizing personal possession at a national level. We heard from the Swiss about their excellent treatment programs. But all of those had to -- we heard from Jamaica about their implementation of decriminalization, but all of those are examples of testing flexibilities, using a lot of international lawyers in order for countries to assert that they have a right to protect their citizens.

So in situations where drug conventions are actually in direct conflict with human rights, with public health, I think pretending that flexibility is enough is not a good way to think about how we construct the international regime. So in my view it's actually very clear that we need to be, that adhering to the current conventions, drug conventions only, is not enough. That we need to do a lot more, and bring human rights and public health into the debate openly.

DOUG MCVAY: We'll get back to that debate in just a moment. Again, we're listening to the annual parliamentary hearing of the International Parliamentary Union, discussing the world drug problem in preparation for the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem that's to take place in April. You're listening to Century Of Lies. Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

KIRK TOUSAW: I'm Kirk Tousaw, I'm a lawyer practicing in British Columbia, Canada, and working in the area of medical cannabis. We launched a lawsuit immediately to try to protect people's rights. It was launched by John Conroy, QC, who's lead counsel on the case, and John, before my involvement, was able to successfully get a federal court here to issue an injunction that protected some, but not everyone's right to continue to produce for themselves while the trial was pending. At that point I joined the case, along with other lawyers. We fought a pretty hard trial, about a year ago now, and I think we were very successful in demonstrating that the government's reasons for getting rid of people's gardens were not based on any facts, but were instead based on stigma and mythology about cannabis consumers, and about producing cannabis safely, cheaply, and effectively for yourself.

The judge saw through to our position, and yesterday issued a ruling which actually struck down the entire regulatory scheme here in Canada, completely, as unconstitutional, and because that would have left a legal limbo, suspended his declaration, which means basically hit the pause button on it for six months, in order to allow the government of Canada, which is now the Liberal government of Canada, not the Conservative government of Canada, to allow them to respond legislatively to his findings. So that comes down yesterday, and the injunction continues for the people it used to protect, but unfortunately was not expanded to protect any people that were left out of the original injunction.

DOUG MCVAY: Now let's get back to that International Parliamentary Union hearing on the world drug problem. Again it was held in early February in New York City at the United Nations, in cooperation with the Office of the President of the General Assembly. It's all in preparation to the UNGASS, the big UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, to be held in mid-April. It's being moderated by Julia Taylor Kennedy, the participants in this debate in favor of the current regime are Anti Avsan, MP at the Parliament of Sweden, and Kevin Sabet, a professor from Florida. Against the current framework, we have His Excellency Ambassador Luis Alfonso De Alba, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the International Organizations in Vienna, and Dr. Kasia Malinowska, Director of the Global Drug Policy Program for the Open Society Foundation.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So my initial follow-up question is for those who argued in favor of the motion, and to remind those who joined us later, the motion is, Implementing the international legal framework will address the world drug problem. So my follow-up for this side of the table, and you can answer in whichever order you prefer, with a two-minute response each: Is the international legal framework currently overly focused on criminalization, and require more guidance on the inclusion of human rights and development?

KEVIN SABET: I think the more pertinent question related to that is, you know, what is being implemented on the national level. Again, you know, these conventions allow for countries like Switzerland to coexist with countries that don't have treatment type policies. And so, whether the international regime is focused on it, I mean, I think in the past it has been, at different UN meetings, but I think rightfully so, the discussion of HIV, human rights, and by the way, not just human rights for the drug user, but also human rights for the children of the drug user, the human rights for the neighbor of the drug user, the human rights for the business person living in a community in Colorado where marijuana candies and cookies and juices and sodas targeting young people are existing because these people want to profit off of other people's addiction, and absolutely the human right of the user to get treatment and to move away from a life of addiction to a life of recovery. Because I think we sometimes lose, what is the goal here. And I think the goal, I would hope we could all agree on, is for recovery, is for people to live their life to the fullest potential, to be productive members of society.

So, in the past, where the international regime may have gone overboard in terms of punitive criminalization, I think that's wrong, and I think that we have to make some corrections. But, we should not live in a world where we think it is one or the other. Criminalize and throw in jail and give no human rights, or get rid of all legal controls and let, you know, the free market advertise and promote as we have seen with disastrous consequences so far in the United States over the last few years in a few states that have gone that way with cannabis legalization, and I worry about the countries here that want to attract tourists and others based on commercialization. That is not a public health approach. A public health approach is treatment, absolutely, harm reduction absolutely, when needed, and recovery and prevention. Thank you.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: And, do you have anything to add?

ANTI AVSAN: Yeah, I can say, that it is not the human right to use drugs. That's very important to say, because in the discussion often people say that might be a human right to use drugs. The UN convention on the rights of the child recognizes a child's right to grow up in a drug free environment as a human right. That is the only human right in the conventions connecting directly to drugs. The UN international covenant on social, economic, and cultural rights talks about the right to health. All societies attempt to protect their citizens from risks they cannot foresee. These may be anything from additives in food to seat belts in cars, this is part of the duty of society and of governments to protect citizens from risks. The majority of people who start to use drugs do so at a young age, when it is difficult to make their own assessment of long term risk and that's very important in this case. Thank you.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Thank you. Okeh, turning to those who are arguing against our motion. How do you respond to the assertion from, that we heard from those in favor, that out, that outlawing narcotics has worked to reduce usage, and should be applied to other drugs such as alcohol and tobacco to reduce usage.

DR. KASIA MALINOWSKA: Well, so let me turn to a country that decriminalized personal possession, which is Portugal. We now have fourteen years of data, which shows very, very clear, is that decriminalized possession, not criminalized possession, did not lead at all to a situation where people are, where people start to take, increase their drug use. What it did do is actually made, allowed people who wanted to access, who wanted to have a better relationship with the state, to actually access services. They were no longer afraid of the police, they were no longer afraid of police standing outside of a methadone program, and they actually began using services a lot more freely. So this discussion of, you have to criminalize in order to people -- to keep people away from drugs, is just not true. Again, if you look at Holland, we all know about coffee shops in Holland. Cannabis use by the Dutch in Holland is lower than all of the neighbors, where cannabis possession is in fact a criminal offense.

So we somehow think that criminalization and use go, that there's a correlation, and are arguing something that scientifically is simply not true. And Kevin talks about, Kevin talked about tobacco. Well, how many people are we putting in prison for tobacco in Europe? And the tobacco use in Europe is dropping dramatically. It's not about criminal sanctions, it's about public health. It's about good, thoughtful public health. And we see this across the world, and we should be learning from it. Because the paradigm that we keep using, which is criminal, in order not to increase use, is simply not true. There's no empirical evidence for it whatsoever.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Thank you. Excellency?

H.E. AMBASSADOR LUIS ALFONSO DE ALBA: Thank you. First of all, I don't think that the prohibitive approach, which people are in favor of, it's not the only one in the convention. I don't think it's reduced availability or the consumption of drugs at world level. Evidence is clear about this, but it is even worse when we talk about developing countries. The increase of the consumption in developing countries is extremely dangerous, and I don't think, and as I said a few moments ago, if we have a punitive approach exclusively focused on the three conventions, that we'll have any different results. It is clear, I think at this stage, that we need a discussion and the discussion has to begin with something which I said before, we have to answer the question, whether consuming drugs is a human right or not.

In the case of my country, the Supreme Court of Justice has just issued a decision precisely in this context, recognizing that full citizens do have the right to consume and to grow cannabis. We have to open up this debate. My country's doing so. The parliament is doing so, as well as the executive also, and we cannot close off any of the options. But beyond that, we have to agree that in the special session of the assembly of 1998, there was a balance between consumption, of production and trafficking, and now with the vision of allowing for certain flexibility in the conventions, just focusing on the consumer, we're having an imbalance in the strategy. The consumer's a victim again, and the producer isn't, and I wonder how many women and young people and marginal groups have been victims of this. For minor crimes, they're in prisons, there's no alternatives and no proportionality in the sentences. That has to be dealt with, too.

DOUG MCVAY: That was a debate of the International Parliamentary Union at the United Nations early in February, on the motion: Implementing the international legal framework will address the world drug problem. Those trying to justify prohibition in this debate were Anti Avsan, an MP from the Parliament of Sweden, and Kevin Sabet, an assistant professor in Florida. Those arguing against the proposition and in favor of reform were His Excellency Ambassador Luis Alfonso De Alba, Permanent Representative of Mexico to the International Organizations in Vienna, and Dr. Kasia Malinowska, Director of the Global Drug Policy Program at the Open Society Foundation.

In April, the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs will be held. It is the first step toward really beginning reform, and a possible rewriting, of the international drug control conventions.

That's all the time we have. Thank you for joining us. This is Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. We'll be back next week with more news and information on the drug war and this century of lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.