01/30/19 Doug McVay

Century of Lies
Helen Clark

The Graduate Institute of Geneva and the Global Commission on Drug Policy recently presented an event entitled The Lost Decade in the Global War on Drugs. Today on Century of Lies we’re going to hear portions of that event, including presentations by Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, former Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, and Member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy; Mariângela Simão, MD, Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization; and Anya Sarang, President of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation.

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JANUARY 30, 2019

DEAN BECKER: 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.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs will soon hold its 62nd annual session. The CND meets from March 18th through 22nd in Vienna, Austria. In 2009, member nations agreed to a political declaration with specific targets in drug related indicators to be reached in ten years. Ten years on, it’s now 2019, so the CND should be looking at how they’ve done.

Unfortunately, the CND doesn’t much like looking back at how things are going, because, well, a litany of failure is depressing. And unfortunately, the CND and the UNODC keep law enforcement at the core of international drug control policies.

Fortunately, there are nongovernmental organizations and policy reform advocates that will take an honest, critical look at international drug control policies and how well nations are performing. The International Drug Policy Consortium and the Global Commission on Drug Policy are two such groups.

On January 28, the Graduate Institute of Geneva partnered with the Global Commission on Drug Policy and, with the support of the IDPC and the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, presented an event entitled The Lost Decade in the Global War on Drugs. Today on Century of Lies, we’re going to hear portions of that event.

First, let’s hear from Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former Administrator of the United Nations Development Program. Ms. Clark is also a Member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

HELEN CLARK: For the past half century, a global drug control policy has been based on the general principle of elimination of the production, the trade in, and the use of any illegal psychoactive substance.

And that policy has been advanced through fierce law enforcement, and in parts of the world militarization. Actually, from that has come what the UN Office on Drugs and Crime itself has described as a range of quote "unintended consequences," although maybe if people had reflected a little, they would have been seen as so surprising.

But those consequences include creating the most profitable, illegal market for goods in the world, that is the market in drugs. It has had the consequence of mass incarceration around the world. It has contributed to health epidemics across HIV, hepatitis, and TB.

It has contributed to so many deaths through overdoses, and of course, it has also contributed to a lack of access to effective medicines, which would benefit many of the world's people seeking relief from pain and other treatments.

Now, the impact of these punitive policies, mandated by the UN conventions, has been borne by the world's poorest and most marginalized people, the people we are exhorted in the Sustainable Development Agenda not to leave behind. But they are left behind as a result of these policies.

So, the member states could change course, with global drug policy. They could change course unilaterally, as has been seen most recently in, at the nation state level, in Canada and in Uruguay, with legalization and regulation of cannabis.

And when member states meet in Vienna, at the ministerial segment in a few weeks' time, they could take a realistic review of the 2009 political declaration and plan of action on drugs.

It is actually extremely unfortunate that there has been no official review or evaluation of that decade to inform the member state deliberations. You know, in the eight years I was at UNDP [UN Development Programme], we were expected to evaluate everything, and report on impact. But there has been no official evaluation of the decade on drugs.

Now, thank heaven for civil society, and for this report, which is a very thorough report, produced by the International Drug Policy Consortium, and I was very pleased to contribute a forward to it. I think it's findings are quite compelling, that we have indeed had a lost decade on drug policy.

Now, let's remember that the political declaration of 2009 set this year, the end of the decade, 2019, as quote "the target date for states to eliminate or reduce significantly and measurably illicit cultivation, production, trafficking, and use of internationally controlled substances."

In short, as you've already heard, this has not happened. Not remotely happened. Actually, a number of the trends have gone completely the other way. As, for example, with opium production, up a 130 percent in the last decade. Coca, up 34 percent. Drug use as we heard up 31 percent. Drug related deaths have soared, estimated in 2015 alone to be 450,000 deaths.

And then there's mass incarceration, that I spoke of before, where one in every five of the world's ten million prisoners are there mostly for minor and nonviolent possession type offenses.

Drug violence, needless to say, has spiraled in this context, and if we just take Mexico alone, its period of dedication to the war on drugs, quote unquote, has seen something like a quarter of a million deaths, thirty thousand or so disappeared people, and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons.

So, any honest evaluation, like the civil society report, would have to draw out these consequences. This has been a decade of failure, and it's time to learn from that.

It's also fair to say that this failure is a very big barrier in the way of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, not least, and we could take almost any of them and look at the relevance of this war on drugs, but take Sustainable Development Goal Sixteen, and its very first target, which was to significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere. Well, hello.

And of course, we're also exhorted to leave no one behind, as I said before, so, the Global Commission on Drug Policy would really hope that the next decade on global drug policy would align with the 2030 Agenda. We have produced a whole document on that, which was released at UNGA last September.

Also, in Mexico last September, we released the latest report from the Commission on the preferred direction for global drug policy, and its called Regulation and the Responsible Control of Drugs. We say that just as societies regulate almost everything else with the potential for harm, whether it's the way we drive our cars, whether it's tobacco or alcohol, guns, food standards, so drugs should be regulated and states should accept their responsibility to do so.

So, we think it would be really very unfortunate if member states were just to rubberstamp a repeat of this past decade of past global drug policy. We think it would be better to be bold in supporting pragmatic and evidence informed policies. We already heard a reference to Switzerland, obviously Portugal, many other examples now, where they have had much better results from following different approaches.

So, we would urge member states to look at the evidence, to look at the other options, to modernize drug policy, to leave no one behind, to aim to reduce the number of deaths and injuries, the rate of incarceration, the rate of violence, to regulate markets, to try to take the criminals out of them, to introduce massive harm reduction policies, which have been shown to work so well in this country, and let's underline, to uphold human rights and advance the wellbeing of the most marginalized people around our world.

The 2016 UNGASS was a step forward in the approach to drug policy. I think the real risk now is that the Vienna ministerial is a step backwards to pre-2016. This would not be progress.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Helen Clark, Former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former Administrator of the United Nations Development Program, Member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. She was speaking at an event entitled The Lost Decade in the Global War on Drugs.

You’re listening to Century of Lies. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of

Now, let’s hear from Doctor Mariângela Simão, Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization.

MARIÂNGELA SIMÃO, MD: When we were prepare -- while I was preparing for this, frame the issue of the public health dimension in facts and challenges, and a [inaudible], and there's one fact, you know, in life, is that everybody's going to die someday. You know. But the challenge is that people should not die before their time.

No, they should not die when they -- for preventable reasons. No, so, that's, I think, this is a huge challenge for us, I think, it's this, it's clearly the case of the almost half a -- five hundred -- half a million people who die every year of drug related issues, or illnesses like HIV, hepatitis, and so on.

The majority of these deaths could be prevented, and quality of life could be improved. And this year, last year actually already because we're in 2019. Last year, WHO had its seventieth anniversary, 70 years, and the Human Rights Council as well.

And at the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary, Doctor Tedros [Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the WHO] said that, instead of health for all, we have health for a few.

And this is actually so striking, and some people are really affected more by that, you know, because after all, what we believe in is that everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live, they should have access, at least, to the health services they need when they need it, and not go bankrupt because of it, and they should not suffer discrimination.

I think this applies very well to what we are talking about here. We always -- I always like to put this, when we're talking about the world drug problem, it's like when we are having discussions about intellectual property. There's always the two sides, and the sides are not -- the positions don't change.

We, the world, faces a dilemma, because on one side, we have the challenge of preventing and treating the harmful use of drugs, and that's -- and the opioid crisis in North America now is a good example and ample evidence of harm done by several reasons.

On the other side, we have the challenge of ensuring access to drugs with medical use, and here I see Katherine, who will not, you know, I need to tick all the boxes, because on the access to pain medication, the access to pain medication is not a problem from developing world only, it's just more acute in the developing world. This is also present in high income countries, where you have only 25 percent of people who would need pain relief with opioids have access to them.

So, it's -- we're talking about something that affects the world. On one side, you have the repression, the other side you have the need for people to have access to the technologies that could make a difference.

In the last decade, the focus of the international agenda was a war on drugs, and increasingly, we see in the rhetoric the issues of the public health approach coming more frequently.

We know that the war on drugs has failed, and, but I was thinking about the lost decade, you know. I love the title, it's very impacting, but actually, I think we learned. It's not a lost decade, because we learned what doesn't work. You know?

So we should not keep repeating what we have evidence that doesn't work, you know, that's, we should use that information and the science we have behind it to push everybody, member states, and civil society, international organizations, toward what's the evidence base, and what works.

So I would say it's not lost, totally lost. And, of course, we need these global agreements to be balanced, and we need alternative solutions, approaches, to deal with the world drug problem from a public health and human rights perspective.

They come in the same package, the right to health comes in the same package. And some things should be no-brainers, because everybody has agreed, I mean member states, not civil society in this case, has agreed to the Agenda 2030.

You know, and there's several, like, across seventeen goals, there are fourteen goals that have fifty targets that are health related targets. You know? And we agreed to that, the world has agreed to this framing on how to -- how do we try to make this world a better world.

And then, we come to the UNGASS outcome document, and then you see how we think, when you're talking about the drug policy, the agreement on drug policy. It's not perfect, but it's better than what we had. That's one thing.

But should we be comforted by that? No. Right? We shouldn't. It's -- but, there' s a lot of space there that we need to do better. I mean, we collectively, because it's better than the other frameworks we had before, and it gives more space for human rights and health.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Mariângela Simão, MD, Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization. She was speaking at an event entitled The Lost Decade in the Global War on Drugs.

As I’ve mentioned before, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs work to keep the international drug control policy process as opaque as possible. CND meetings only get webcast live, and only portions of those meetings are ever webcast. They do not maintain a video or audio archive of past meetings.

It’s the twenty-first century, Vienna is a modern city in a modern nation, the United Nations has the technology and the experience. The CND has no excuses, other than a desire to keep the public out of the process, to keep people like us in the dark.

That’s why I stay up overnight and record the webcasts of the CND’s annual meetings and its intersessional meetings throughout the year. Like this show, that is a volunteer effort. No one is paying me to tape all that. I do it because it needs to be done. I’ve been working on drug policy for more than 35 years and I will be damned if I’m going to let some petty bureaucrats keep me in the dark.

I think you folks get it, too. You understand that this stuff is important, and that’s why you tune in every week. Or maybe you subscribe to the podcast. But however you do it, you know that each week, we bring you thirty minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs.

That’s my pledge to you. I’m Doug McVay, your host and the editor of, and you are listening to Century of Lies.

Now, let’s get back to the The Lost Decade in the Global War on Drugs. For our final segment, we’re going to hear from Anya Sarang, President of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation.

ANYA SARANG: As I was asked to speak on behalf of the communities, I guess I can't talk on behalf of all the communities affected by the war on drugs, but I can talk about women from Russia who use drugs.

I do use drugs, illicit drugs, myself. Sorry, mom. But, I never developed drug dependency. I don't have HIV. I don't have hepatitis C. I've never been in prison.

So, I don't really bear the same stigma and the same weight of discrimination as other women who use drugs in my country. However, I did work for the past 20 years in the field of drug policy, HIV prevention, and harm reduction in Moscow, in Russia, the country with one of the most repressive policies, drug policies, in the world.

During -- Russia is very adherent to the 2009 political declaration on drugs, and Russia really strictly implements some of the provisions of this declaration. Russia's drug, national drug policy, drug strategy, is based on this declaration.

However, this national drug strategy does not even mention once human rights. It opposes harm reduction and opioid substitution treatment as threat to the national drug policy. And this drug strategy is based on zero tolerance towards people who use drugs.

As a result of this drug policy, in the last decade, as a person who works in this field, I have witnessed a huge degradation in the field of health and human rights for people who use drugs.

We are now among the three top countries with an increasing level of HIV epidemic. We have over one million people living with HIV by the official data. We're among three countries in the world with a huge -- with the most, with the highest level of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis due to huge levels of incarceration.

We have estimated five million people living with hepatitis C, and we have a huge prison population which consists mostly of people who are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.

I wanted to share a personal story with you just to give a kind of personal touch and human face to our discussion, and, it's not my story, it's the story of my fellow activist, from a woman from Russia, the city called Tolyatti.

And, her name is Oksana Shpagina. Her story actually started also about ten years ago, when she already had developed drug dependency, heroin dependency. She had HIV. Ten years ago, she decided to try to give up drugs, because she really wanted to have a healthy life, and she wanted to have a baby.

Two years later, she met a person she fell in love with, and she got pregnant. She was so happy about it. She was still not using drugs, however the doctors told her that because she had HIV, she could not have, because she used to be a junkie, she could not have a normal baby.

She was told that she would give birth to a cripple, to an ugly child, that she's not deserving to have a baby herself because of her horrible life before that.

She really struggled with the doctors, however, she decided to have an abortion because she was threatened so much, and she started to believe herself that having HIV is a contradiction to having a baby.

However, when she already was ready to terminate her pregnancy -- I forgot to also mention that because of all the stress that she went through, she started to use drugs again while she was pregnant.

And, she could not get any drug treatment. As I mentioned before, substitution treatment is illegal in Russia. It's considered as a threat to the national drug strategy. But it's the only way to keep a pregnant woman in drug treatment. And in Russia, women are deprived of this treatment.

So, she found out from her friends that actually, people with HIV, women with HIV, can give birth to healthy babies, and she decided to have a baby. And although she was under stress for all the term of her pregnancy, she had a healthy baby.

The baby was a bit early, but, she had the healthy daughter, and she was so happy about it. However, she kept meeting all the threats, that the baby will be taken away from her. She was so stressed, and she was -- she kept using drugs.

Several years later, Oksana decided to undergo drug rehabilitation. She couldn't get access to proper drug treatment or assistance, so she went to a rehabilitation center based on, like, some faith based center. Unfortunately, it was not very successful, and after a couple of months, she started to use drugs again.

Later, police came to her house and she was arrested for drug possession. She was released at the time, but several months later the police came again, and they planted drugs in her house, and she was in prison for -- she was given three years in Russian colony.

We actually interviewed her two years ago for the report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy 2017. From prison, she shared her story, and she said that it was so unfair that she was in prison. She was not involved in drug trafficking. She was just a drug user.

In prison, she didn't get proper medication for her HIV condition. The anti-retroviral medication was intermittent, and the quality of treatment was very poor. She also didn't have a chance to be with her baby, obviously.

She was released from prison less than one year ago, but 18 days ago, she has died, because of the poor treatment with anti-retrovirals in prison, and because it's a very common story for our friends in Russia who have HIV, who get a prison term, which can be a death sentence for them.

I'm really sorry for my emotions, it just happened recently, and, I wanted to share this story because Oksana is a victim of the war on drugs, but also because her story is a story of resistance.

As I mentioned, she was an activist. Through all those years, when she struggled with her drug dependency, when she struggled with discrimination, when she struggled with humiliation, she never failed to fight for her dignity.

In 2013, for the first time, she issued a complaint to the UN's Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and to the UN Special Rapporteur on Health. Her complaint has been accepted, and communicated to Russia.

However, Russia said that they don't find any violations of human rights in Oksana's story. She had given several press conferences in her city, despite the fear and despite the oppression, and despite the constant threat from the doctors, from the police. She was brave enough to share her story.

We're also -- Oksana has also issued a complaint to the UN Committee Against All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and her case is now under review of the Committee.

To me, she is not a victim of the war on drugs. She's a real hero, the hero who could speak up despite all the terrible things that she has faced. But to me, Oksana also is a -- although she's a hero, she's a typical, unfortunately very typical example of what is happening with women in our country.

Unfortunately, Russia is not accountable. As you can see from the response to the Special Rapporteurs, as you can see to any official communication of their -- of Russian government to our multiple complaints about discrimination of people who use drugs, Russia cannot be held accountable.

But why? Because Russia always justifies its actions with adherence to the UN drug declarations.

And the Russian government is proud to have this restrictive and repressive drug policy.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Anya Sarang, President of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation. She was speaking at an event entitled The Lost Decade in the Global War on Drugs.

And that’s all the time we have for this week. I want to thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of

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We'll be back in a week with thirty more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. 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.