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Axel Klein, GDPO Senior Research Associate.
April 24, 2019.

At the 62nd meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in March this year the tensions between states with widely diverging drug policies finally came to the surface. On the floor of the plenary meeting the Russian delegation took Canada to task for ‘violating international law [by] legalising cannabis.’ (http://cndblog.org/2019/03/plenary-item-9-implementation-of-the-international-drug-control-treaties-cont-2/)

The Russia delegate also took issue with the Expert Commission on Drug Dependence of the World Health Organisation for recommending that cannabis be moved from schedule 4 of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and placed in the less strict schedule 1. Interestingly, the objection had nothing to do with either the new assessment of the harms posed by cannabis or its medical potential. What had given cause to offence was that the ‘perception of the world of the community would be that legalisation is fine and dandy. Probably the experts don’t have to go through the turmoil of thinking through the repercussions of their decisions. They are technical experts. Nothing more’ (emphasis added).

Technical issues, say of patient benefit, the need to address discrimination and stigma, or pre-empt trafficking were not touched upon. The Russian Federation’s statement also glossed over the fact that the placement was not designed to be permanently fixed. The original founders of the system expected that substances would move across the schedules as more scientific evidence became available. Important to recall here is that at the time that cannabis was slotted into schedule 4, tetrahydrocannabinol, the most important psychoactive substance, had not even been discovered.

The point of Russia’s attack on countries like Canada, Uruguay and several US states– though only Canada was singled out – was the risks that legalisation was having consequences.

Consequentialism has not been a driving force in the history of international drug control, given the ontological foundation of the treaties on the ‘welfare of mankind’. The system architects recruited ‘mankind’ to labour in the construction and then retire. Hence the object of Russian concern were not people in their totality or diverse sub-populations – patients, drug consumers, communities – but the ‘international drug control system’ itself.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, we then understand that adhering to the provisions of the three drug control conventions and the various associated agreements and protocols is only indirectly to do with problems of addiction and substance misuse. Their overriding purpose lies in protecting the functionaries and officials who work in it.

Such proposals tend to resonate particularly with representatives of countries with natural resource-based economies and authoritarian regimes. If the recent focus on human rights has already opened a divide between countries, the question of accountability is likely to push them even further apart. Justifying costly layers of administration to tax-paying electorates (though not to universities), is difficult at the best of times, but particularly when they fail to have a positive purpose.

And yet this is what the international system has long been lacking, at least according to Antonio Maria Costa, the former head of UNODC. In a seminal address to the CND in 2008 he stated with counter-intuitive perspicacity, that the ‘system was no longer fit for purpose’ and unable to contain a number of displacements.(Costa, Antonia Maria, Making drug control ‘fit for purpose’ Building on the UNGASS decade, Report by the Executive Director of the UNODC, 2008) The first he mentioned was the ‘huge criminal black market that now thrives in order to get prohibited substances from producers to consumers.’ Along with these markets comes the full spectrum of crime from large, police and policy corrupting syndicates to addiction fueled shoplifting. Such crime is the trade-off for containing the public health that is threatened by open drug markets. It is on this Faustian pact that the system is build.


(Antonia Maria Costa, UNODC)

Picking up on the admonition by the Russian delegate to consider the repercussions of our actions we need to review the criminogenic effect of drug control. This has to be done repeatedly and publicly precisely because it runs counter to the popular assumptions. In popular folklore, police and paramilitaries are believed to be breaking down doors and shooting up laboratories in ‘response’ to drug criminals. In effect, the causal effect runs the other way. The harder police and magistrates squeeze drug supply, the more devious and brutal the industry becomes when meeting the demand.

The fact that drug control generates crime needs to be repeated to policy makers at every level and may even hold sway with an audience that is otherwise immune to arguments about human rights, patient needs or stigmatization.

At the CND in Vienna most national delegations are comprised of and led by senior law enforcement officers or officials of the Ministry of Interior. If the realisation that vigorous enforcement is resulting in ever more vigorous criminality has not so far had much effect comes down to one of two possible sets of explanation. First, it could be that they are (i) simply not listening, (ii) the causal chain has not been understood, or (iii) is simply not believed. But the second explanation is that the criminal justice sector agencies and public have different objectives. The former are interested in expanding and increasing means and powers to enforce the law. And if public safety is one of the outcomes, so much the better.

In accordance with key tenets of institutional economics we hold that drug control and law enforcement are driven by motives of any social organism – self perpetuation. Hence the need for continuous checks and assessments of policy purpose and outcomes. Since all institutions also include well intentioned and dedicated professionals the need for restating the arguments of criminogenic consequence has to be repeated over and over.

Naturally it is much more difficult to achieve results in thematic areas where key policy decisions have been abstracted by remote and unaccountable international bodies. As the Russian delegate reminds of the importance of repercussions, it is high time to take back control.

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The Psychoactive Consumer and International Drug Policy: A Sweeping Sketch

Christopher Hallam, PhD
GDPO Research Associate

The role of the consumer, in its complexity and diversity, is often marginalised in analyses of drug policy. Of course, it is obvious that consumers play a part – if nobody were smoking, injecting, drinking or otherwise consuming psychoactive materials, there would not be a control regime trying to stop them. However, the consumers of drugs are a variegated group; their tastes for multiple psychoactive substances are formed by complex, often hybrid, cultures, and are satisfied by globalised industries and services. The forces of governance and the regimes of control are confronted not by a monolithic consumer and supplier, but by multifaceted appetites that are poorly understood by those seeking to suppress them. They are stimulated by the very attempt at control.
If we examine the historical foundations of the international control apparatus, its ground zero lies in China and its intricate population of opium smokers – or rather, the ways in which that population was constructed by the imperial powers, which possessed the economic, social and technological authority to enforce their will. The United States of America should be included in this grouping, as it had recently taken colonial possession of the Philippines following its brief war with Spain; it is notable that the beginnings of the US’s imperial period coincided with the inception of its global drugs project. Indeed, the occupation of the Philippines was tightly bound up with the suppression of opium smoking amongst the Chinese inhabitants of the islands.

Chinese opium smokers, lodging house, San Francisco (late C19th)

The Chinese diaspora, travelling to many parts of the world in search of work, carried the practice of opium smoking with it. Settling into Chinatowns across the planet, the diaspora became the object of indigenous fear and loathing, often centred on concerns over economics and the sexual possession of women. The cultural practice of opium smoking became a symbolic locus of this ontological panic (which underlay the ‘moral panic’), while governments constructed legislation to suppress the smoking of opium, before moving on to other drugs.

Opium smoking found its way from the Chinese diaspora into sub-groups within the indigenous population. Sex workers, the sporting classes, the underworld, the bohemias of modern cities, these took up the practice of opium smoking, followed by other drugs and modes of consumption: such use was a badge of otherness, a sign that one shared with the immigrant the status of outsider: the mark of the elective alien. The movement of psychoactive drug cultures from modernity’s ethnic diasporas into the indigenous population was an object of anxiety for nation states preoccupied with identity and borders. It was a movement that began with the Chinese but followed on successive waves of people of colour. The spread of bohemian culture – the ideas and attitudes of the elective alien – would, as the twentieth century developed, bring drugs into the youth movements of the 1950s and after.
The drug culture and the project of drug control are, therefore, profoundly bound up with conflicting patterns of identity and belief in modern societies. They are thoroughly symbolic and tied in complex ways to the process of modernity itself.
The responses of governments and international organisations to these developments are too many and varied to cover in their specificity here. However, a few general trends can be traced. The attempt to suppress the consumption of one drug led to the development of new, stronger and more mobile replacements – a trend which remains apparent today in the proliferation of hundreds of new psychoactive substances. In a final irony, the assembled discursive authority of governments, legislators, law enforcement agencies, educational systems, and finally bodies concerned specifically with ‘prevention’ have, in their vocal pronouncements against the evils of drug consumption, succeeded only in stimulating the appetite, and identifying it with freedom.
It is high time for a new approach.
Current policies are linked to an impoverished understanding of drug consumption, based upon assumptions current within the cultures of contemporary states. One could summarise these understandings as centred on ‘theories of absence’- in short, the idea people only take drugs because they’ve got something missing in their lives, either genetically or psychologically (for the political right) or in terms of social capital (for the left). Policies therefore are either repressive or therapeutic. None of them have been very effective so far.
On the other hand, if drug consumption is, as I have argued above, intimately bound up with the history and cultures of modernity, and is fundamentally part of the processes of modernity, there’s no point in these approaches. Instead, policies must integrate drugs and their users into a more generous cultural mainstream. The only approach that fits into the reality of the situation is a form of harm reduction, which accepts drug consumption and sets out to ameliorate the risks and harmful impacts of it. But the conception of harm reduction I’m suggesting here would be an extremely broad one, which includes acceptance of the benefits of some modes of drug use.

Chris Hallam, PhD

February 2019

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Better to Ask Forgiveness Than Permission: What the rest of the world can learn from Spain’s approaches to drug policy

The movement for drug policy reform is a global one – and it has become increasingly important to look at what other countries are doing on drug policy to see what can be learned. Portugal’s decriminalization model and Switzerland’s pioneering role in heroin-assisted treatment have been studied extensively, and there’s an emerging field of promising research evaluating state-level cannabis legalization in the U.S.

Overlooked in this discussion is Spain, where certain sub-national entities (similar to states in the U.S.) have implemented innovative approaches to drug policy based on the principles of harm reduction and a rejection of prohibitionist principles.

A new report, released today, takes a deep dive into Spain’s drug policy reform. What makes these reforms interesting is that they’ve succeeded in spite of the central government, not because of it – an approach that we call “better to ask forgiveness than ask permission”.

The best-known of Spain’s drug policy innovations are cannabis social clubs, which emerged in Catalonia and the Basque Country and have now spread throughout the country. These clubs utilize ambiguities in the law to allow the use and distribution of cannabis to their members under certain circumstances.

And Spain isn’t just noteworthy for its cannabis policies. The U.S. and other countries can learn a lot from Spain’s successful harm reduction interventions, which include safe consumption spaces, heroin-assisted treatment, take-home methadone, opioid substitution and syringe programs in prison, mobile methadone clinics, and drug checking services to prevent accidental overdoses.

At the same time, Spain has never technically criminalized drug possession, meaning that drugs are essentially decriminalized. Nonetheless, there are many fines and fees for possessing drugs, making Spain’s policy more punitive than Portugal’s.

While Portugal’s model is often seen as a beacon for reformers, political realities make its implementation in places like the U.S. very challenging. Portugal’s national drug decriminalization policy was comprehensively implemented in 2001 by its central government. It’s unlikely that the U.S. federal government – especially the current one – would implement drug decriminalization nationally without states moving forward on the issue first.

Spain’s political system – autonomous regions and a central government – largely mirrors that of the U.S, with states having a level of autonomy on many issues despite there being a strong role for the federal government. As we have seen with cannabis reform in the U.S., states will take action on certain drug policy issues even when the federal government expressly opposes it. Spain provides a potential roadmap for how U.S. states can implement cutting-edge drug policies in other areas, beyond cannabis.

Since many of Spain’s reforms are undertaken by autonomous regions, there is still a risk that the central government could try to undo their progress. This report was concluded a few days before Spain’s President Rajoy was dismissed by parliament and the new socialist government of Pedro Sanchez came to power. Changes in public policy are expected on many fronts, including drug policy and other public health issues.

However, until now, the Socialist Party has yet to embrace drug policy reforms.

This report serves as a guide for countries around the world, as well as the new Spanish government, to understand how and why Spain’s drug policy reforms have succeeded so far – and where improvement is needed in the coming years.

You can read the full report here: Full Report

Constanza Sánchez is a GDPO Research Associate and the Law, Policy and Human Rights Director at ICEERS

Michael Collins is the Deputy Director at Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs. He just spent 9 months in Catalonia, working on drug policy.

**The Spanish version of this policy briefing will be available soon / La version en español de este informe estará disponible muy pronto.

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